2011 LA Auto Show – Fashion, Trends and Fads

In the year since I started publishing these posts, one of the things people tell me they enjoy most is the summary of trends from the auto shows.  Some have even commented I must be a bit crazy to do it.  I mean who else would take the time to not only review and photograph every car on display, but also count (almost 500 at the LA show in case anyone is curious) and catalog the various designs (what shape is your headlamp?) and finishes (how many have body colored side view mirrors you ask).   Hint, only a (obviously OCD) nut like me would know.  So before we review the results, perhaps I should issue a few words of caution ……..

First, there is no intent to identify actual market trends with these reports.  An auto show isn’t so much the “real world” as much as its what automakers think will resonate with consumers.  Want a great example of that?  Steel wheels!  While the actual NA market is roughly 50% steel wheels, very few are on display at an auto show.  Second, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it will sell.  If every car at the auto show had a faux convertible roof that would be worth reporting, but it wouldn’t necessarily identify a consumer trend.  Finally, we try not to include low volume manufacturers in the reports.  Why?  I think many designers may look at Jaguar grilles for inspiration, but I don’t think a Ferrari grille translates into the C-Sedan segment.  So please keep these words of caution in mind as you review the following report.

I had a hard time deciding if grilles or wheels were more important and which should go first.  If I am having this problem I can only imagine the difficulty a vehicle team has in deciding where to spend the limited money they get for these components.  In the end I decided to start with the wheels.  Why?  Because wheels are one of the few visual items on a car a consumer will spend extra for (along with things like exterior paint and interior materials).


After being surprised with the new design and finish directions at last year’s LA Show, the theme for this year could easily be “Nothing to see here, move along”.   Whereas the number one story from last year’s show was the sudden advent of Gloss Black wheels, there wasn’t a real story to tell this year .  Yes, there were just about the same number of black wheels this year (roughly 6%), but the overwhelming majority of them were last year’s designs.  If it is true that manufacturer’s are not bringing any new black wheels to market, that puts the “Gloss Black” wheel fashion in the same category as Matte Finishes from the year before – a fad And speaking of Matte wheel finishes, that fashion has almost completely disappeared from the show floor.  Only a couple of the almost 500 vehicles on display had them this year, which might officially qualify as “over”.

Other wheel design and finish trends from last year do seem to be continuing.  A simple Silver or Grey Paint is still the most popular finish (~38%) and combining those colors with a Machine-face is still second (~16%).

Toyota Camry

The use of a darker contrasting color with the machine face seems to be gaining ground (~16%) as there were as many of them as there were the lighter colors.  This was especially evident in the Mercedes booth where pretty much every car or SUV larger than the C-Class had a dark grey two-tone appearance .  Standard paint in darker grey colors appear to be maintaining the same market position as before (~6%).

Mercedes C63 AMG

There was a little shift in the Premium wheel finishes part of the market.  Premium Paint (~8%) appears to have stolen some market share from Polished (~5%) as only it seemed only Chevrolet and Jeep had multiple Polished wheels on display.

Chrome was a little down from last year (~6%) and here there were a couple of interesting wheels to note.  First, their were a few wheels with chrome inserts (versus being fully chromed) and Ford introduced a new PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) wheel on the Escape.  It will be interesting to see how they market this finish since it looks like chrome but isn’t.

Cadillac XTS Chrome Inserts

Ford Escape PVD Wheel


If chrome is only slightly down on the wheel side of things, there sure seems to be a change in the wind on the Grille side of the business.  Specifically, Ford is moving away from the “large swaths of chrome” grilles that have set them apart from the North American market as evidenced by the new Escape.  I do not know yet if the consumer market will embrace the change as I believe many Ford buyers want the big chrome look (and some older market research has supported that), but I do know it will be interesting to watch what happens.  Ford’s new grille design language as introduced in Frankfurt, seems to be a close copy of Audi’s (a thin band of chrome around a gloss black grille). But for every company like Ford that is using less chrome, there is another company like Toyota that seems to be using more.

Ford Escape Gloss Black Grille

Two companies that I think seem to be have similar thoughts on grille design are Honda and Volkswagen.  Looking at the new Honda CR-V and the latest Volkswagens you can see a common direction even though the details are different.  First, both companies have abandoned the idea of a grille surround and are using a simpler horizontal design and second, they are using chrome as an accent.  The third point, however, may be the most interesting.  Both companies are integrating various parts of different finishes right next to each other (i.e. without any noticeable gap at all) which gives the appearance of a single piece.

Honda CR-V

I read a great article a year or so ago that talked to some designers about the changes they anticipate.  Many were anticipating major changes in body proportions but so far we haven’t seen that except in futuristic concept vehicles.  A similar question I have been posing for a while is what happens to grilles when cars get rid of their internal combustion engines.  I guess the Cadillac ELR answers that question as a totally aesthetic and non-functional grille is used to adorn the front end.  The ELR also brings another recent design trend to the forefront, using different chrome finishes together in one grille (i.e. bright chrome and satin chrome).

Cadillac ELR


If wheels and grilles are two of the most important details on a car or truck, then lighting is the third leg of that table.  In fact, has become such an important part of a car’s identity that I will have a special 4 part article on the history of lighting design in a couple of weeks.  As a teaser here are a couple of the latest design trends in lighting as demonstrated at the LA Auto Show.  First is shape – the days of a rectangular headlight or tail lamp is over.  Lights have evolved in several stages, first they were only on the front or rear, then they wrapped around to the side of a car, and then they wrapped into the horizontal surfaces.  I guess all wrapping has become simple looking so now the actual shapes have started changing.

Honda CR-V

Second lighting has started being better integrated into the neighboring components.  Some great examples of this are the new Honda CR-V and Ford Flex.

Ford Flex

Finally lighting has started to be designed not just for its daylight appearance, but also how it looks at night.  Audi was a trendsetter in this area with their “eyebrow” daytime running lamps and BMW was right there with their headlamp “rings”.  These days you can almost tell the brand of car in your rearview mirror at night just by the appearance of the lighting.  Come back in a few weeks as we trace the evolution of lighting from the days of sealed beam headlamps to the future of LED lighting.

Volkswagen CC

Subaru BRZ


It has been a few years since I paid attention to side view mirrors and I can tell you not much has changed.  At that time there was a big push for cost cutting as many mirrors converted to a black mold-in-color design.  I am happy to say this appearance was almost completely absent from the show this year.  The only place I found it was on some Pickups, nary a single econo-car on display had them.  Even the new Chevrolet Spark sported body-color mirrors.


Much like Side View Mirrors, I have not paid a lot of attention to exterior door handles for a few years.  Back then the question was black mold-in-color, body-color or chrome.  Today a new variant seems to be fairly common on some of the more premium automobiles, the combined body-color and bright chrome designs.  I guess it is part of the overall trend away from large surfaces of chrome towards using it mainly as an accent.

Caddilac XTS


Just like the mirrors and door handles, a few years ago we were inundated with a dearth or design in the DLO area.  Just like a party full of auto designers, black was the rule.  Thankfully the accent came back as bright DLOs staged a comeback, both in a bright and satin chrome appearance.  The main difference these days is whether the car or truck uses the brightwork around the entire DLO or just along the beltline on the bottom.

Infiniti JX

The split seems to be close to 50/50, that is unless you are Hyundai.  The unique appearance of the bright trim strip at the bottom of the side windows that extends all the way to the headlamp as seen on the Sonata has been duplicated in the new Azera.

Hyundai Azera

Above is just a brief overview of the data that is available – we also have data on interior trim, seating, exterior trim and roof racks.  If you would like a full report or presentation on the trends in design and finishes of the major exterior or interior components just get in touch.  Come back tomorrow as we present the results from Designer Night at the Races(TM) Event #21 from Detroit and see if perennial champion General Motors gets unseated.

About Frank Schwartz

Frank Schwartz is the founder of CarFriend.me and Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, partner in The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment and serial entrepeneur. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank started reading car magazines at the age of 8 and has spent 30+ years working inside the automotive industry. In his spare time Frank races with the Sports Car Club of America, spends time working on his numerous project cars and supports many local charities.
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1 Response to 2011 LA Auto Show – Fashion, Trends and Fads

  1. Pingback: 2012 NAIAS – Fashion, Trends and Fads | thesupplierblog

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