Contemporary car design is art, science, and technology. To parse through the marketing hype and sensory overload, I focus on fine bits of automotive design, to find just one thing that makes a vehicle look extraordinary.
It’s no small feat to make a typical flat-faced sport utility vehicle look fantastic. That’s what makes the Jaguar F-Pace a standout crossover. The brand helmed by design director Ian Callum — the person responsible for the original Aston Martin DB7, the Jaguar XC-75, and most recently, the Jaguar F-Type — is taking a victory lap.
Two years after it first took the streets at the Tour de France, Jaguar’s first SUV, the F-Pace, has found its stride. It’s selling at record levels, in step with the trend of luxe brands like Porsche and its moneymaking Cayenne, and it’s the reigning World Car of the Year. (Full disclosure: I serve on the World Car of the Year jury.)
Though Jaguar had never made a truck before, it had insider access to sister brand Land Rover’s aluminum architecture, which created the blueprint for good-looking trucks: the original Land Rover Defender. And the design team was able to tap into the DNA of Jaguar’s attractive sports cars, to make the vehicle Callum once swore he’d never design, according Top Gear (something he also once told me in an interview.)
Now that the F-Pace is on the road, it stands out from a sea of crossovers. When you look at it from the front end, it doesn’t look like a crossover vehicle, and that’s because of one thing: its grille. The Jaguar F-Pace looks like a wildcat.
Jaguar’s approach to the grille centers around a roundish rectangle form. Speckles of black mesh resemble the dots on the face of an actual jaguar. And the circular jaguar crest at its center could be imagined as if it’s the animal’s snout, flanked by a pentagon that borrows from the F-type intakes and tapers into a mean lower lip. If you stare long enough at the front end, the LED lights seem to be squinting at you, hovering over the mouth, like a cat contemplating its hunt. The proportions communicate a pouncing motion so that when it pulls up behind you in your rearview mirror, you might even move aside to let it pass. The F-Pace S I recently drove caused more of a stir than your average suburban go-getter, and had the performance to support this physicality, with a supercharged V6 engine that made 380 horsepower, and included paddle shifters for extra fun.
When you think of grills, you may picture licks of heat escaping through the grates like at last weekend’s summer barbecue, or the single-speaker grille on the Essential phone, or even cheeky grillz, made famous in Paul Wall’s mouth. Automotive grilles, like any good design object, first were made to serve a function.
In cars, in simplified terms, the function of the grille is to allow air to enter the engine, to keep it cool. Grilles have morphed into various forms over the years — steep, flat, bulbous, or slanted — and have used varying amounts of shiny chrome. In car history, grilles quickly became a reflection of brand distinction. A BMW wouldn’t be a BMW without that signature kidney grille. The great automotive design writer Phil Patton traced the evolution of Audi’s single framed grille, inspired by the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. Visual News even made a quiz to challenge car enthusiasts on their grille knowledge.
How we perceived a subjective design item is in the eye of the beholder. In the original Cars movie, Autoweek reported that John Lasseter turned to the 1952 Disney short Susie the Little Blue Coupe, which meant that the windshield became the eyes of the car, freeing up the grille to be a talking mouth, not the entire face of the car.
Why the Jaguar grille is significant is that it has set the tone for a new chapter in the brand’s history, and that directly carries over from Jaguar’s sports car models. Its latest entrant, the small E-Pace SUV shares facial features and it also the forthcoming electric I-Pace due out in 2018. Of course, as Jalopnik pointed out a few years ago, once electrics vehicles are common, and combustion engine won’t require additional air flow to operate, the future of the grille as we know it may be in peril. At that point, this design no longer serves a function, and the possibilities open up for a whole new face.