Vellum Venom Vignette: A new Sante Fe and the depreciation of “face” value
We may never know why Satoshi Wada made the formerly staid, static bumper of the Audi A6 into the gaping maw that changed the world in 2004. But from there on out, oversized grilles—with real-estate ratios bordering on prewar standards—became commonplace. Yet unlike yesteryear’s frontal speed holes, the faces of today’s automobiles are so large and toothy that disturbing amounts of teeth are non-functional.
It’s a shame, but better aerodynamics merits smaller grille openings than most designers would wish. It’s not the designer’s fault that vehicles are as tall and bloated as they are today, but a designer’s workaround is a grill veneer, one with all the honesty of the fake wood present in a Chevy Nova Concours. No, really—take a close look at all (most?) modern grilles and you’ll see how much of it is a solid casting of black plastic.
While we can’t blame Audi for the trend of fake teeth, oversized grille faces are now the predominant component that ensures every car has a recognizable, palatable, and marketable face. On the current (2023 model year) Hyundai Santa Fe, there are 20-something block-off plates that turn the grille into the sort of non-functional real estate normally accomplished by a painted fascia. That painted part once provided a logical transition to headlight assemblies at each corner. Without it, the Santa Fe’s headlights turn into puffy beaver cheeks adjacent to that toothy, partially fake smile.
It’s all very organic and logical, and we’ve seen this far too many times in our daily commutes. There’s no hate in my assessment: The 2023 Santa Fe’s face shows a logical evolution from Audi’s rounded, organic, gaping maw into something worthy of a mid-level CUV. Grilles as faces have been pushed to a delightfully logical extreme, but it’s so disingenuous on many modern machines.
Enter a new look with a familiar name. The 2024 Hyundai Santa Fe eschews our current trend of faking smiles and illogical headlights, bringing an honest face into the extremely profitable market of jacked up station wagons crossover utility vehicles. Instead of trying to make a face with a bold grille and catchy lighting pods, we are treated to a democratization of facial features via layers upon layers of modernist shapes.
That last sentence includes a lot of words that might fall flat. If so, consider this: It is clear that a mainstream Hyundai vehicle is officially adopting the 8-bit school of design first seen on the Ioniq 5. And 8-bit styling has strong roots in modern architecture from almost a century ago, as I can’t remember how many times I’ve associated the graphics in an Atari 2600 video game with that of modern architecture. (I’m looking at you, Atari Adventure versus any Brutalist building on a college campus.)
The Modernist tones continue at the side and rear of the new SUV, as the Santa Fe is now embracing the machinery that brings it to life. (And, perhaps, also embracing the buildings that house the design studios where the model originated?)
No matter, the influence of the revolutionary Ioniq 5 means the Santa Fe now looks less like a copy of a Land Rover. Sure, the roof pillars give off a Discovery vibe, but suggesting the Ioniq-infused Santa Fe is ripping off whole chunks of prestigious English DNA is like suggesting the 1986 Ford Taurus photocopied the 1982 Audi 5000 . . . neglecting the fact that Ford made its own wild-looking jellybean in the 1982 Ford Sierra. Don’t fall for that particular Pitfall.
Sigh. Sometimes a bad pun is needed to make a Modernist point: Going blocky with 8-bit design is a winning move in our contemporary world, either as Gen-X pop culture nostalgia or for a CUV that looks like nothing in its price bracket. The Santa Fe absolutely stands on its own four wheels, even if the jamming of the front wheel-arch contours into the front doors is rather tacky. There are layers upon layers of beauty and purpose in this new design, provided you find beauty in other Modernist designs.
The Santa Fe does for suburban families what Unité d’habitation did for living spaces in European city centers. That said, comparing the transportation needs of an American middle-class family in 2023 to the housing shortage created after WWII is a bit disingenuous. Modernism paved the way for lifting people out of poverty, serving as a guiding light for more housing in our growing, densifying cities. Applying this notion to cars may seem unorthodox, but modern CUVs certainly reach skyward—much like an apartment complex.
Let’s see more of the Sante Fe’s “blockiness” in other vehicles, and reject organic faces with fake smiling grilles. Pointless contours must be replaced with functional, logical blocks of painted panels, eye-catching LED chips, and purposeful areas of negative space. We don’t need fake teeth to make a shiny, happy, recognizable face. We should embrace the modernist principle of functionality, found in the original Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee, the Squarebody Chevy Suburbans, and those iconic Land Rovers.
A happy face may be nice on a “bug-eye”Austin Healey Sprite or on an animated NC Miata, but adding modernist construction to the 2024 Santa Fe makes it much more appealing as a utilitarian product. There’s a chance this architectural appeal could translate into success on a larger scale than that of the long-forgotten Ford Flex.
Who knows, a (growing?) family of architecturally pleasant automobiles could indeed carve out a profitable piece of the pie. So join me in saying goodbye to the organic face of modern cars, and get excited for a return to modernism. Or do the opposite, if you’re feeling contrarian, and get one of the big-grilled crossovers before their memorable faces disappear from new car showrooms . . . because they are likely facing extinction.