DRIVE!: Out of drag

Aerodynamic cars are sexy and fuel efficient — as Detroit has long known


CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

My stylishly fabulous friend from Paris once said, “These are the most uncomfortable shoes ever, but they are Prada.” My partner and I, on the other hand, have become patrons of Cole Haan, purveyor of kicks that are well-made and beautiful but as comfortable as sneakers. With or without a label, style and functionality can go together — especially with automobiles.

Chrysler built a wind tunnel by 1930 and enlisted the help of Orville Wright to explore shapes that would slip through the air more easily. They discovered cars of the time would have gone through the air more easily driving backwards. The result of their work was the Airflow, from 1934 to 1937 an art deco masterpiece that employed streamlining and elegant curves not fully appreciated until the Ford Taurus debuted in the mid-‘80s.

Given the abysmal sales of the Airflow, American automakers wanted no part of engineered styling, choosing instead to splash on chrome and fins. However Germany learned. The VW Beetle and Porsche 356 were influenced by the Airflow’s underlying engineering, and the Audi 5000 and Mercedes from the late ‘70s and ‘80s relied heavily on wind tunnel testing, giving them a timeless style that still doesn’t look dated. Recently, the quest for better gas mileage and battery range pushed aerodynamics forward.

Bugatti’s million-dollar Veyron supercar is one gorgeous hunk of carbon fiber and stays grounded at 268mph with the help of a rear spoiler that raises and pivots automatically. Active aero should be expected on a car of this pedigree, but it is also becoming commonplace on fuel sippers from America, Japan and Korea.

AIR APPARENT  |  Engineered cars allowing wind to move in a path or least resistance have been hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz, above, for decades, and make the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron, top, road candy for the eye.

AIR APPARENT | Engineered cars allowing wind to move in a path or least resistance have been hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz, above, for decades, and make the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron, top, road candy for the eye.

Designers focus on how the car greets new air, where the air flows around and under the chassis and the amount of turbulence-causing drag occurring as wind soars over the rear of the vehicle. A sleek front, smooth undersides, streamlined mirrors and clean break at the tail optimize efficiency. That’s why you are now seeing flat edging at the rear of vehicles, smaller spoilers, fluid mirrors and very tall decklids. The look is most extreme on the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius.

Cars do not need as much grille cooling the engine at higher speeds. To help cars slip through the air, and get the 40 miles of electricity-only driving some promise, automatic shutters close and divert air around the vehicle. They are included on the Kia Optima Hybrid, Ford Focus SFE, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Chevy Cruze Eco, Volt and Malibu Eco. It works: Cruze Eco achieves 44-MPG in highway driving without a hybrid system; the “lightly electrified” 2013 Malibu Eco will achieve 38-MPG. It’s safe to say no cars since the Airflow were fussed over so thoroughly to both look good and go smoothly through the air.

You can easily see the attention to aero on a sedan like the Camry, but the Camaro ZL-1 is special. GM’s Tom Peters and his team went overboard to make sure the hood vents increased downforce, but were also sculpted out of carbon fiber. Ground affects and a subtle rear spoiler were engineered for performance, but styled to be beautiful, like a linebacker who stays tan and smooth with sharp attire.

Any aerodynamicist worth their smoke wand can make cars slippery. Real talent comes from designers who can also make them beautiful. Cars of all types and prices prove designers can pen shapes that are sexy out of drag.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens