For a century of car design, sports cars and sporty cars were defined by being lower and more dynamic than normal cars; even when parked up they seemed to be straining at the leash to zoom forwards with exterior forms apparently cleaved by air. But this idiom is fast waning; today a sporty car is a car that looks potent and ‘match fit’ like a rugby player, with a four-square stance, rippling muscles and an aggressive face ready to punch forwards on the high-way more so than to zoom up a mountain pass.
Earlier this month we saw the announcement of the Audi Q8 which exemplifies this car design trend. Here is a car described by Audi as a ‘four-door luxury coupe’, and despite this coupe description being belied by the car’s crossover genes, the term is accurate in the way that the Q8 both is more coupe-like than most crossovers, and in the way that the design has a planted stance and ‘don’t mess with me’ face; it is very much a sporty car in today’s lexicon of car design.
The origin of ‘sporty’ in cars is motor-sport and sports-cars. A hundred years ago cars that raced were sports-cars by definition, sports-cars were a type of car used for motor-sport. This evolved quickly such that few race cars were suitable for driving on public roads, but sports-cars had become an established type of car which were ‘sporty’ and bridged the gap between a normal road car and a car used for motorsport; they were faster and more exciting than normal cars. In design a sports car was, and is, lower than a normal car. Its cabin area also takes up a smaller proportion of the car relative to that on a normal car because more of the car’s volume is dedicated to the engine (as demarked by the hood / bonnet volume area) evidencing its priorities of power over accommodation. When viewed from the side, its smaller cabin is off-centre — generally quite far rearward, but sometimes more forward with mid-engine sports cars — which gives it a ‘dynamic imbalance’ that makes it look like it is moving even when it is standing still. A good stance from large wheels pushed far outboard relative to the core volume of the car body, low ground clearance, and small wheel-arch gaps, adds further to sports-car-like ‘sporty’ qualities. So sports-cars are a type of car and their design much defines what constitutes ‘sporty’; but a sporty car is not necessarily a sports-car…
The first examples of sporty cars, as distinct to true sports-cars, were those that literally sat between the purist open-top / roadster sport-car and the normal car in their typological design: the Grand Tourismo (the ‘GT’) or the coupe which had and has greater accommodation and refinement than a sports car, but is sleeker, faster and more impractical than a normal type of car. In the later half of the twentieth century motor-sport derived spoilers, alloy wheels, air-inlets and outlets, and decals were added to the main design signifiers of ‘sporty’ for cars, and were embraced by the hot-hatchbacks and sports-sedans as the ‘sporty’ derivatives of otherwise normal car types.
Now, with cars like the Audi Q8, we are in the third age of ‘sporty’ — no longer is it about having sports-car design type or motorsport design details, it is about a more fundamental and visceral idea of potency and strength evidenced in the core semantics of car design. Underpinning this design trend are three things: firstly, the way that the Crossover has come to dominate the automotive landscape and with it shift so much of the desired and ‘premium’ qualities of cars towards its tall tough design type. Secondly, the huge rise in power of high performance car variants over the last two decades (the most powerful of upper-medium sedans, lower-medium Crossovers, and compact hatchbacks now have about 600, 500 and 400 ps respectively, more than twice what they had twenty years ago) — and how these are cars not designed to zoom round a race track of European mountain pass, but to punch forwards after the toll-gate. And thirdly, the way that suddenly a lot of the world’s young consumers of these high performance Crossovers don’t much know or care about sports-cars or motorsport, and so no longer expect or place value on the sporty design qualities that derive from them.
With this migration to taller crossovers as desirable cars, generally ‘powering up’ of high performance cars, and lack of awareness or value attached to sports cars and motorsport, so the context of ‘sporty’ has very much changed. A sporty car today is a car that has a design that looks potent and ‘match fit’ more like a rugby player than a sprinter, with a four-square stance, muscular forms, and an aggressive face ready to punch forwards; and it is a exemplified by the powerful crossover, by cars like the Audi Q8. New sporty now is about punch not zoom.