Back in 2005, ostracion cubicus—or "the yellow boxfish"—was cited by Mercedes-Benz as having been the inspiration for the design of that company's "Bionic" concept car. The Bionic incorporated a lot of forward-looking tech, but is still mostly remembered for its shape: boxy.
M-B's engineers were trying to maximize efficiency with the Bionic design, to squeeze the most out of the least in terms of fuel consumption. It turned out that what makes for efficient dynamics in water is very similar on land and through the air as well; a fluid medium is a fluid medium.
The Bionic led to several subsequent generations of boxfish-looking cars as pretty much all other auto manufacturers have also pursued efficiency in order to meet increasingly stringent corporate fuel standards for their annual offerings.
But boxy is neither completely new in the 21st Century, nor is it always as unappealing as it might sound.
Here are 8 boxy cars that look great, and 8 that look, well, like boxes.
16 Good Box: Scion xB (2011)
Toyota's Scion marque was discontinued in 2016. The idea behind it was to appeal to younger buyers in North America who might find "Toyota" to be too closely associated with their parents' Camry sedan or pickup truck offerings.
In this case, the model name was a riff on the well-known texting emoticon "XD". The latter is supposed to convey a laughing response.The idea is that the xB was a fun car. That's marketing for you.
The crazy thing was that this model was more popular with middle-aged buyers than with the 20-30 year olds that the company had targeted. Indeed, as it was transitioned off the market, Kia's competing version, the Soul, appeared as if by magic to take its place. It too has been a great success with middle-aged buyers looking for a compact "hatch" with a manual transmission for under $20,000.
15 Good Box: Ford Bronco (1990)
The Ford Bronco was a very boxy vehicle going all the way back to the 1960's when it was a very purpose-built off-road vehicle. The version that gained such notoriety in the 1990's was the first of the truck-based Broncos. In a way, that's a bad thing, though perhaps not entirely.
This Ford Bronco made off-road vehicles mainstream. It showed that a 4x4 could be rugged in the mud and be ruggedly handsome when it was all cleaned up. Solid in the city and in the country, all at the same time. Also, this particular model, as we know, clearly demonstrated that an off-road vehicle could be "safely operated at freeway speeds..."
14 Good Box: Honda Element (2011)
The Honda Element shared its platform with its parent company's big selling crossover SUV, the CR-V. In practice, the Element—characterized by its high-top sneaker appearance—was actually much more of the "sport utility truck/vehicle" that Honda and other manufacturers have since sought to sell to buyers in the form of newer models which are based on small pickup platforms.
It had a unique design from the outside in. The side and rear entry doors were all configured to provide maximum access and were notable for their great height starting from just a few inches above curb level. The Element, on that basis, was a very popular car with dog owners for the full run of its roughly decade-long lifespan.
But that all ended in 2011 as the Element was dropped from Honda's line; overtaken by competitors' copy-cats, including the afore-mentioned xB and Kia Soul.
13 Good Box: Mercedes-Benz G Wagon (2017)
If you have been on any car website—including this one—for longer than say 15 milliseconds then you know all about the Mercedes-Benz G Class.
The G Class cars are the very definition of "boxy." However, the G Class' high-top style is reflective of their unmatched off-road capability. As many have pointed out, the over-whelming number of them which are sold (especially in North America) will likely never see anything more challenging to their suspension system than a suburban drive-through speed bump, but this is still a classy vehicle.
The latest version claims an over 400hp biturbo engine and enhancements to its drive train which will make it even more of an off-road beast- or give it the capacity to totally crush the speed-bumps at your favorite SoCal Mickey D's, whichever.
12 Good Box: Volvo 850 (1997)
There is a relatively famous scene from an old movie. In it, two creative types who work in advertising are trying to come up with an ad for Volvos. One of them suggests, "They're boxy, but they're good." That was definitely true for Volvos of that time.
Even at that, the 850 was special. It was the first straight 5 most of us in North America had ever seen and it was Volvo's first-ever front - and later all - wheel drive offering.
There are other great Volvos from the 1990s (240s and 740s for example) but people who love to drive would hold onto their 850s with all of their might. To this day, putting up an "850 for sale" notice in a Volvo repair shop is like throwing raw meat into a shark cage.
11 Good Box: Jeep Wrangler JL (2018)
Back in the early days of the personal computing boom, somebody came up with a term to describe a piece of software that would be so great at one crucial function that everybody who owned a PC would have to buy a copy of it: "the killer app."
If there is an automotive equivalent to the killer app, then the Jeep Wrangler is surely it. The best evidence of that status is that over 4 years after purchase, the resale value of a Wrangler is still over 50% of sales price.
On the downside, it is also expensive to insure because for a large chunk of its history, people have confused the Wrangler with a roadster, or at least they have tended to drive them as if they did. That's not a good idea given the car's high ground clearance.
10 Good Box: Isuzu Trooper (1995)
As a corporation, Isuzu never has had a very developed network of dealerships in the USA. Certainly not when compared with other Japanese auto makers like Toyota, Nissan, or even Subaru, so Isuzu products have often taken circuitous paths to get to the North American market.
That was very much the case with the Isuzu Trooper of the 1990s. When it finally came to North America it was one of the first SUVs to venture into the luxury market. Later, the Trooper was one of the first in its market segment to offer an SUV in a RWD configuration.
All of which demonstrated that the appeal of the SUV in the USA was then beginning to shift from strictly off-road to suburban needs. The SUV was encroaching on the station wagon's territory for the first time, at least within North America's middle class.
9 Good Box: Toyota Land Cruiser (1980)
The legend of the M-B G Class is that the design originated with the Iranian Army in the 1970s. In other words, it was a military vehicle executed by a luxury car maker. The Jeep Wrangler on the other hand, is based on the Willy's Jeep that was born in the ravages of World War II.
Between those two extremes is the Toyota Land Cruiser, the one that the Japanese auto giant used to produce with an eye to the off-road market in its near neighbor, Australia. That one was so well-built and so rugged that many are still on the road, or perhaps off-road.
The spirit of the Land Cruiser was resuscitated for a brief time in the North American market as its descendant, the FJ Cruiser, but now even that one is gone.
8 Bad Box: Nissan Cube (2014)
Sometime in the last quarter of the 2oth Century, the Japanese imports that had been known as "Datsuns" in the USA switched identities and became Nissans.
Then, the Alliance happened. Nissan joined forces with Renault in a scheme to battle Volkswagen on a worldwide scale and it's been nearly two decades of insanity since. Well, perhaps not insanity, but much more fragmentation in terms of what's offered by NissanUSA.
The Cube is definitely boxy. Heck, it's right there in the name, isn't it?
Its visible styling was a pretty impressive departure for production autos back in the 1990s, but as it moved onto the world stage during the first decade of the new century, the poor handling and weak power were too much to overcome, and it retreated to Japan in 2014.
7 Bad Box: Suzuki Samurai (1990)
Every once in a while a manufacturer stumbles onto a great formula: copy an enduring and popular classic, but undercut that classic's pricing. Then sit back and wait for the lawsuits...no, wait...
Unfortunately, that's what happened to the Suzuki Samurai at least in North America. It was branded fairly early on in that market as being prone to rollover and there was quite a big legal todo about that in the US courts.
An affordable and convertible runabout with on-demand 4WD is a good idea and the Samurai was pretty well executed, particularly considering the segment it was competing against when it was first introduced. Indeed, there are many devotees of the car still among us. The model itself still exists to this day—albeit outside of North America—as the Suzuki Jimny.
6 Bad Box: AMC Gremlin (1975)
AMC—American Motors Corporation—was another company that was acquired by Renault. It was sensible because, of all of the major US car makers, AMC was most often the quirkiest, the most creative, and the most willing to take risks.
AMC itself had been born of the (perhaps unholy) fusion of a home appliance manufacturer with two of the classic name plates from the history of the US auto industry.
MPG became the major watchword in terms of US car sales in the 1970s and all manufacturers were on the look out at the start of the decade for smaller car options. The story goes that AMC was unable to afford to produce a separate platform upon which they could produce such a "VW Beetle-beater," so they truncated one of their existing sedan chassis and the abrupt lines of Gremlins were born.
The car wasn't really that awful, nor does it linger in the memories of past owners as might the remembrances of first love...or a Porsche.
5 Bad Box: VW Thing (1973)
The main reason for the Thing being on this list of is that it is a wysiwyg type of construction. That might not be so bad for some cars, but this one looks like a platypus (apologies to small, aquatic, egg-laying monotremes everywhere) on the outside and that's exactly what it is on the inside.
This one is another military vehicle turned consumer model.
I am not sure why VW would have produced this agglomeration for the West German military, and I can only guess as to how they got away with it, but The Thing was released into the wild at roughly the same as the Gremlin. Similarly, it was built on the carcass of its brethren: The Thing was part Beetle, part Minibus, and part...well, actually, we're still not sure.
4 Bad Box: (Foxbody) Ford Mustang (1990)
I have to confess that I am one of those weirdos who actually liked the second generation Mustang's looks. Maybe because it represents the early 1970's and there wasn't a lot of competition in the looks department back then, or maybe it's because I always liked the very early 1970's Mach 1 look as well. Maybe it's just because Lee Iacocca was a better salesman than most people give him credit for.
Not long after helping to birth the Mustang II, of course, Iacocca left Ford for Chrysler. Regardless of your opinion of that second generation, the Foxbody generation that was spawned shortly thereafter was the nadir for America's favorite pony car.
As far as the Mustang was concerned, it would take another two decades and the superhero like intervention of Canadian Sid Ramnarace to turn that fox back into a pony.
The Foxbody platform was spread thin, intending to mimic and rival GM's F-body lineup. For whatever reason, GM got it right—particularly in the Pontiacs of the 1970s—while Ford seemingly misfired at every turn.
3 Bad Box: Porsche Macan (2017)
The influx of advanced manufacturing technology has been a great boon to the auto industry. The development time for new models has been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. Think of a car today and you might find yourself in the middle of a parking lot filled with them a few months later.
The bad news is embodied by abominations such as the Porsche Macan. The hotter a hatch it is, the better, and the Macan has some seriously hot numbers: the Turbo model's twin spinner 3.6 V6 model makes just under 400hp/300kW and 550 Nm/406 lbft of torque.
But take a close at those numbers again. That says, "V6". V, not boxer.
Tech has made it far too easy and too common for quality marques to be diluted by putting their name on products that are do not at all represent what they stand for. A marque is more than just badging. A Porsche is defined as being mid-engine coupe with a boxer that growls when you put your foot down. End of story.
2 Bad Box: Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class (2018)
With the GLA series, M-B has stepped into competition with makers such as Audi and Porsche (see above) who has decided that the luxury hatch has a future.
Truth be told, the Audi A3, which kind of set the bar in this segment, is the best of the lot. It's actually a very good car and a more than adequate hatchback. But that's likely because Audi had a lot of experience to draw upon from their association with VW, the Golf and especially the GTI. The A3 is a completely separate car from the GTI, but a ride in both will convince anyone that their design and engineering teams at least exchange information if not ideas as well. M-B's GLA series has none of that going for it and it shows.
To repeat: hatchbacks? Good. Luxury brand hatchbacks? Maybe not so much.
1 Bad Box: Renault Mégane II (2008)
The Mégane is affordable and, in later incarnations, is not a bad value for the money. It is not so much a hatchback as it is a moderately sized wagon, perfect for a small family. Unfortunately it gained a reputation early on for being a bit too fragile. That all started—ironically—with its starter. The system incorporated a keycard of flimsy construction.
The thing is that the car won't run without that key. Under the hood the wiring is kind of fragile as well, and there are a lot of even more fragile plastic parts.
The Mégane could've be so great, and someday still might be. Until then, keep your keycard in a safe place...and drive the Golf instead.
Sources: bbc.com, amazon.com, wikipedia.org
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