Electric cars don’t need grilles. Don’t tell car buyers that.

The first-generation Nissan Leaf electric vehicle (EV) didn't have one and people weren't happy. The function of the grille is evolving in the EV era, from mostly operational to strictly ornamental.

(Getty Images, Reuters)

When the first-generation Nissan Leaf electric vehicle (EV) hit the road a decade ago, something was noticeably different. The car looked like it had had a dramatic nose job—the front grille was missing. Originally designed as a way to allow air in to cool an engine via the radiator, the grille was no longer needed on the battery-powered Leaf, and the company had made a design decision to do away with it.

Some owners loved the new look. Others, not as much.

“The design was polarizing,” admits Francois Lefevre, chief marketing officer for electric vehicles at Nissan Canada. Some EV drivers liked that the car stood out, while others preferred a more traditional front-end design. “They wanted to say, ‘Hey, I’m driving an EV’ without screaming out loud,” Lefevre says.

In the end, the traditionalists won out. After surveying more than 300,000 Leaf owners since 2011, Nissan put a faux grille on the front of its second-generation Leaf released in 2018, including the latest 2020 model. The so-called “V-motion grille,” with a multi-dimensional blue background, is more aligned with the Nissan brand, Lefevre says. “There is a lot of personality there and a lot of identity with the grille.”

Many car buyers, it seems, don’t just like grilles; they like massive ones. Consider the front end of any modern pickup truck (like the RAM 1500) or SUV (like the Lexus RX) for a sense of just how dominant grilles have become in current car-design language.

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The function of the grille is evolving in the EV era, from mostly operational to strictly ornamental. Yet a part that, in some cases, serves no purpose at all is turning out to be a key brand differentiator for automakers. It’s why many of the established brands are sticking to their lanes when it comes to constructing the front fascia of their future vehicles.

“The shape, texture and proportions of the grille are really what sets apart the personality and brand image,” says Liz Wetzel, co-director of the transportation design program at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich.

Well-known examples include the Mercedes-Benz Panamericana grille, Jeep’s seven-bar grille and the kidney-shaped front end of a BMW. Brands such as Rolls-Royce and Bentley are also known for their distinctive front ends. In the EV models for some of these iconic brands, such as the Mercedes-Benz EQ category, there are faux grilles that maintain the look of the same part in the automaker’s traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

It’s the new automakers such as Tesla, without a historic brand to preserve, that are taking more risks with the front end of EVs, Wetzel says. She points to examples such as Tesla’s Model 3 and its Cybertruck concept vehicle, as well as the Rivian R1T pickup truck from American startup brand Rivian, whose investors include Amazon and Ford.

“We are starting to see more creative executions,” Wetzel says. “It’s a real opportunity for designers to create a whole new personality and face of the vehicle . . . There are different customers and, with that, different brands will take different approaches.”

Ford has developed two types of front grille for the all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E; an “implied grille” that looks like a shield for the GT option, and more of a smooth body colour piece for the other models. Joel Piaskowski, Ford’s global design director for cars and crossovers, describes the latter as an “upside-down horseshoe.” All include the Mustang’s recognizable pony emblem, front and centre.

Piaskowski says the grille area, which he describes as the “jewellery of the vehicle,” is a place for Ford to play with looks that can set it apart from other brands. “We are taking what our customers know and appreciate in our brand equity . . . and applying it in a new manner to battery-electric vehicles,” Piaskowski says.

Ford’s dual move makes sense, Wetzel says, by appealing to both the traditional Mustang buyer and those newer to the brand. “They didn’t want to shock the customer too much and are offering something that is a stepping stone,” she says.

Mercedes-Benz considered losing the grille look when it started to design its EQ category of EVs, according to Robert Lesnik, the automaker’s head of exterior design in Stuttgart, Germany. “We asked ourselves . . . ‘Should we get rid of what we’ve built up over the decades and do something faceless, or stick with what we have?’ ” Lesnik recalls. “The clear answer from us, the designers and the board, was that we want to have something recognizable. The face is very important for the brand.”

Mercedes-Benz designed a slightly different faux grille for all of its EQ series automobiles, each displaying its three-pointed star logo. Lesnik says the grille is a critical design piece that the automaker’s customers (and wannabe customers) can identify and connect with—and is unlikely to be removed in its EV cars in the foreseeable future.

And while the grille may not have the same use as in the traditional engine-powered automobiles, Lesnik says the faux version has a lot of potential to host new technology, such as sensors, as well as unique lighting options. For instance, the company’s Vision EQS concept car boasts a black-panel grille light matrix with 188 circuit boards and 940 individual LEDs that communicate with the vehicle and its surroundings. “In the end, it’s not the air intake anymore, it’s a high-tech piece,” Lesnik says.

Nissan is also unlikely to make another drastic change to the front end of the Leaf for years to come, Lefevre says. It comes back to connecting the car with its loyal customers. “If we change too much in the grille, we will lose that Nissan identity,” he says. “It’s a delicate balance . . . We need to respect the brand design.”

This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The Grille Seekers.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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