From the 1950's tailfin-fueled exuberance, to the boxy, downsized dreariness of the 70's, to the bling-and-dub status conscious 2000's, cars have often represented a collective social mindset. Considering they are as expensive and thoroughly designed and market tested as they are, this trend makes sense to me.
So what about cars today? What mood or state of being are they reflecting? It's hard to say, but certain trends about cars are clear from the latest auto shows. One, it's impossible to buy a bad car in the U.S. (or Western Europe) today. Every single car on the road is at least a good car, and most are great cars. The Toyota Carolla, Nissan Versa, or Jeep Compass, all of which have been relentlessly panned by every car magazine extant, are good cars. They'll all provide years, if not decades, of reliable, comfortable service if taken care of. None of them are the best cars in their class, but they're all objectively good cars.
Second, we are compromising less and less every year with our cars. We can have fuel economy, comfort, cargo capacity, and speed at the same time. A BMW X1 will get to 60 mpg in 6.2 seconds, it can haul an awful lot, rides and handles well, and gets 33-34 mpg on the highway. My old 2000 BMW 323i had less interior volume, had less cargo volume (in the wagon version, too), took about 8 seconds to get to 60, rode and handled well but quite as well as the X1, and got 26 mpg on the highway. Holy hell.
Third, three explicit design factors stick out: strong aerodynamics, minimal greenhouses, and the use of LED lighting to add a stylistic differentiation. Practically every car that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show incorporated all three of these elements, including as varied entries as the Hyundai HCD-14 Concept, Mercedes CLA, Ford Atlas Concept, Chevy Corvette Stingray, BMW 4 Series, and Cadillac ELR. Aerodynamics makes sense: a more slippery car is more fuel efficient, and fuel efficiency is important. The CLA - a desperately pretty yet reasonably affordable four door - will apparently be the most aerodynamic car on the road when it's released, beating out sports cars and fuel economy champs alike. The shrinking greenhouse seems to be a fashion choice, but perhaps is also born from the pedestrian safety regulations, which require higher front fascias. With more sheet metal required, perhaps cars would just look ungainly if they had the same amount of glass? The increased sheet metal to greenhouse might also indicate a desire for protection from the outside world - that we want to be in tanks. Too bad it results in worse visibility. LED accent and daytime running lighting, which Audi pioneered, has virulently spread throughout the automotive landscape (the way the CLA uses LED's in the tail lights it is particularly inspired, I think): I'm not sure a car that costs more than $18,000 could get greenlit today without some sort of LED treatment. Designers always want a point of differentiation, and cars have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, especially at night; LED's allow unique designs that set each car apart. Hopefully it's not a fad and won't get passé too quickly, since I rather like it.
Fourth, we are pushing performance and capabilities further than ever thought possible, and in every possible direction. The Lamborghini Venneno, McLaren P1, the aforementioned Chevy Corvette, and Ferrari LaFerrari represent the obvious edge of performance. Yet, the Alfa Romeo 4C is no less of a stunning performance accomplishment - super light weight while still clearing safety hurdles is an accomplishment in its own right. The most astonishing super car to me, though, goes the other way in every way from the aforementioned cars in every way (but price, most likely): the Volkswagen XL1. 261 miles per gallon. Two. Hundred. Sixty. One. M. P. G. Wow. The ingenuity and sweat that went into that car is no less impressive than what went into its corporate sibling, the Venneno, and is certainly more relevant to us mere mortals.
Taken together, what do these trends mean? Hard to tell. Ask me in 10 years, when I'll have the benefit of hindsight, but perhaps it means that things are better than we think they are? That life is pretty good and getting better all the time? That we're getting closer and closer to being able to having it all? That really smart people are pushing us further and further along, further than we ever thought possible? That despite the promise of today and tomorrow and progress, though, we're stuck in a siege mentality, and feel compelled to have our guard up? And that we're all searching for some sort of individuality?