Daniel Golson is a freelance automotive journalist based in Los Angeles. While obsessed with every facet of the industry, his specialities are discussing design, new technology and the intersection of cars and culture. His personal garage is filled by a bright teal 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SL named after Meryl Streep's character in 'Death Becomes Her.' Read MoreRead More
Aerodynamics Is the Next Frontier of EV Design
New designs are giving consumers exactly what they want — striking looks and killer range. Electric vehicles will never be the same.
Cutting-edge aerodynamics tend to only be appreciated in hindsight.
The first American car to truly be designed aerodynamically was the iconic 1934 Chrysler Airflow. At a time when everything else on the road was huge and imposing, the Chrysler Airflow introduced streamlining to the automotive industry and featured a radical Art Deco shape that was developed in a wind tunnel. It was much more efficient and stable at high speeds than its contemporaries, and its groundbreaking unibody construction provided fantastic ride quality.
It was an absolute flop.
Yet the Airflow’s aerodynamic design changed the face of the industry. Toyota’s first production car was inspired by the Airflow, and Peugeot found big success with its streamliner 202 and 402 models.
Since then, there have been many other aero-focused cars that push the boundaries of engineering, and quite a few of them have been flops. The UFO-like General Motors EV1 of the 1990s was a lease-only experimental electric vehicle with a record-breaking 0.19 drag coefficient. Almost its entire production run was bought back and crushed. Then there was the limited-run 2013 Volkswagen XL1, a diesel-powered hybrid with carbon-fiber construction and butterfly-wing doors that returned 260 MPG. Only 250 were ever made. Maybe the most successful modern example of aero-first design is the Toyota Prius, which is hugely popular, seriously efficient, and has an exterior that people love to hate.
Modern electric cars might just change things though.
The category is still in its relative infancy. Most automakers are focusing on large, heavy EV crossovers and trucks, whether powered by batteries or combustion engines, because those are the most popular segments. But they are also seriously inefficient. To get the kind of range that customers want, most of these new EVs have enormous battery packs. The GMC Hummer EV’s 210-kWh pack is double the size of the ones found in most other EVs and weighs 3,000 pounds. Yet the boxy Hummer still only has a range of around 300 miles.
But EVs like the Hummer might quickly end up an evolutionary curiosity. There’s growing concerned about the dangers these heavy but lightning-fast EVs pose to pedestrians and smaller cars, and some countries are already pushing consumers towards lighter and smaller options through tax rates and incentives. Yet even as charging infrastructure improves and solid-state battery tech emerges, consumers are still expected to prioritize range and efficiency. The result will be a sea change in EV styling, and we’re already starting to see the tides shift.
Finally, aerodynamic designs are going mainstream.
The Lucid Air, Porsche Taycan, and Tesla Model S are all super slippery sedans, but good aero isn’t limited to high-end EVs. The new Hyundai Ioniq 6 has an incredible drag coefficient of 0.21, giving the Long Range RWD trim a range of 361 miles from a 77.4-kWh battery pack. Its starting price of $46,615 is a couple of grand below the average price of a new car. Hyundai prominently features the Ioniq 6’s streamlined design in its advertising, positioning aerodynamics and efficiency not only as economical but cool and desirable. Volkswagen’s upcoming ID 7 will essentially take the Passat’s place in the lineup, featuring a sleek sedan body and a range of well over 300 miles.
This is not to say SUVs won’t still remain incredibly popular, and engineers are finding interesting ways to improve their aerodynamics too. The gorgeous Polestar 3 has an aero blade at the front of the hood that improves airflow and reduces pressures, and a floating rear wing that increases downforce and stability.
The closest modern equivalent to the Airflow is arguably the Mercedes-Benz EQS, the first of Mercedes’ electric EQ sub-brand to go on sale in the U.S. The EQS’ lozenge-shaped body and cab-forward proportions give it a drag coefficient of 0.20, enough to make it the most aerodynamic series-production car when it launched. (The Lucid Air has since beat it with a 0.197 coefficient.) Like the Airflow, many customers and vocal online commenters are put off by the EQS’ styling, especially traditional Mercedes buyers. Mercedes appears undeterred, using the blobby styling throughout its EQ lineup, with an SUV version of the EQS and a midsize EQE sedan already on sale. Despite the success of the EQ models, Mercedes is still probably leaving money on the table by doubling down on the controversial aesthetic.
Until then, there is one recent production car that has pushed the boundaries of what’s currently possible: The Lightyear 0, an expensive Dutch sedan that briefly entered production in 2022. The nearly $300,000 Lightyear 0 was touted as the first truly solar-powered car, with 782 solar cells on the body that add over 40 miles of range per day during the summer, and its drag coefficient of 0.175 makes it the most aerodynamic production car ever. But back in January, Lightyear’s owners went bankrupt and production of the 0 was stopped for good after just a handful were made. The company says it’s focusing now on launching a much cheaper, still solar-powered EV called the Lightyear 2, which will wrap the 0’s know-how in a more accessible package.
Chrysler is bringing back the name Airflow for its first legit production electric car, which will be going on sale in 2024. Sadly, the new Airflow is a crossover that, while handsome, captures none of the same groundbreaking spirit as the original. Yet while Chrysler might still be playing it safe 100 years later, the Airflow’s influence lives on in the world’s most exciting new cars. Aerodynamics are once again having a moment.