Whether a jagged maw of grinning shark teeth, or a perpetually surprised oval, the automobile grille serves a very important function: it allows air to flow in, cooling the radiator and generally keeping the engine from overheating and going kaput. It serves a more psychological function as well, playing an important role in attracting buyers. After all, who wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel of a car that looks like it could chew them up and spit them out?
The grille also could be an endangered species. Cars without dirty internal combustion engines, like battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles, don’t necessarily need a grille. But auto designs have a difficult time transitioning away from a criteria built around the function and needs of an ICE and toward one without those same requirements. Tesla got rid of its grille on the Model 3, and there’s really no around it — it looks mad weird. Some have taken to calling it a “duck face,” and with good reason. The smooth, unblemished front fascia has already spawned a cottage industry of people selling faux-grille stickers for their Model 3. I personally like the one with vampire fangs.
Despite this shift to zero emissions, automakers can’t quite quit the grille. Jagaur’s I-Pace electric SUV has a traditional toothy smile, which the UK car company says is to improve aerodynamics and cool the batteries. The Hyundai Kona has a series of grille-like dimples on its face. It’s a new trend in vestigial, faux grilles that has auto designers rethinking the front ends of their vehicles to ease the transition away from traditional designs. The results are sometimes weird, but you can see the good intentions behind it.
With all that in mind, we spent a little time at the New York International Auto Show last week getting up close and personal with a few grilles. Think of it as an anthropological study that future generations can revisit and marvel at the gleaming, whale-toothed grilles on the autos their ancestors drove. Smile!