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One could mistake the 2024 Hyundai Santa Fe for a Land Rover Defender, were it not for the daring H-shaped headlamps and taillights.Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

What are we to make of the 2024 Santa Fe, the Hyundai with a haircut? Unveiled recently, the new SUV is a chiselled monument to straight lines, cubes and rectangles. It’s a 180-degree turn from the original 2001 model – which looked like a puffed-up Subaru on Sudafed. Each passing generation of the Santa Fe has grown rounder, but now we have an angular SUV that would pass as a Jeep or Land Rover.

Boxy is the new round for the 2024 Hyundai Santa Fe

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A first-generation 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe.The Associated Press

The shift bucks a decades-old trend among automobile designers to make vehicles as curvy as possible. The 2024 Santa Fe isn’t the only SUV to go rectangular. The 2024 Jeep Recon and the Kia EV9 are both boxy. The Mercedes-Benz EQG is as square as they come.

Is the change a harbinger of some kind? Trends are often thought to act as economic indicators. For instance:

  • Bright neckties signify boom times. Darker neutral colours mean recession.
  • Thin ties mean good times. Wide ties mean bad times.
  • Women tend to wear their hair long when the economy is thriving and go short when it’s faltering, according to research done by Japanese cosmetics company Kao Corp.
  • When sales of men’s underwear are down, it is said to indicate that the economy is stalling. If lipstick revenue is up, it signals the economy is in the tank because women are choosing lipstick over more costly luxury purchases.

The most famous indicator is the “Hemline Index.” In 1926, Wharton Business School professor George Taylor theorized that as the economy accelerated hemlines would rise. When it cooled, they would drop. His theory has been pretty accurate over the last hundred years, although recently it has been off the mark. Interest rates are high and the world economy is struggling and yet mini skirts are ubiquitous.

Like neckties and haircuts, automobile design is subject to fashion trends and economic realities. Cars in the 1920s and 1930s were square. In the 1940s, North American cars became curvy as designers streamlined them for look and aerodynamics. Low gas prices and boom-time economy led to the boxy boats of the 1950s. By the 1960s, European and Japanese designs began to influence the North American market. Gas prices were high in Europe and designers there sought to increase fuel efficiency thorough smaller, curvy aerodynamic designs. In the 1970s, gas prices rose and North American design began to reflect the European compact aesthetic.

In the 1980s, boxlike design was the norm. The 1986 Ford Taurus, however, marked the first true curvy North American offering. According to Vox, “it might look unremarkable today, but the design was positively futuristic at the time. The car was even used in the movie RoboCop, which was supposed to take place in the near future…The Taurus was a huge hit, with massive sales that saved the struggling company – and inspired a wave of copycat American cars.” In the 1990s, with a few exceptions, it was all curves all the time. This trend has continued to the present.

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The 1991 Toyota Previa.

Round is best for aerodynamics – think of the jellybean shape of the Toyota Previa or Tesla Model X. Higher gas prices and more stringent fuel consumption regulations have automakers pushing to improve aerodynamics to the point where a lot of SUVs look alike. Boxy certainly stands out these days.

So, how did we get to the 2024 Santa Fe, which seems to have shed its curves overnight? Well, looks can be deceiving. While it looks boxy, the Santa Fe is pretty aerodynamic. Today’s designers – freed by artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies – no longer need to sacrifice looks for fuel efficiency. Sure, fuel economy or range will suffer slightly when going boxy, but nowhere near as much as in the past.

The new Santa Fe reflects the taste of SangYup Lee, the company’s chief designer, and strategic choices that Hyundai leadership made years before the pandemic.

Lee isn’t what you’d call a slouch. He’s executive vice-president and head of the Hyundai and Genesis Global Design Center and was chosen World Car Person of the Year 2023 by a jury of more than 100 industry experts and journalists. He was brought to Hyundai in 2016 by chief executive officer Luc Donckerwolke, who had previously worked with Lee at Bentley. There, the designer created a number of stunning cars, including the Bentley Bentayga (the company’s first SUV) which he called “a muscle-bound tough guy in a Tom Ford suit.”

At the 2024 Santa Fe launch, Lee told the media that the genesis for the design began 4.5 years ago. At a speech in Beijing in 2018, Lee told an audience that Hyundai was pursuing a “Sensuous Sportiness” in its designs. Instead of offering a “Russian doll” approach, in which vehicles share a unifying look, Hyundai’s design offerings would “reflect a game of chess, whereby different models’ unique looks and features are likened to chess kings, queens or knights, while representing a harmonious team.” A look at Hyundai’s 2018 concept car – the Grandmaster EDC-2 – shows an eerie resemblance to the 2024 Santa Fe. Though not as angular, all the lines are there.

What Hyundai seems to have done is create a curved SUV that looks boxy. Hyundai engineers said they learned lessons from recent electric vehicles to help reduce drag. Further, Lee emphasized the lack of busy lines. Could this be the start of a new era in car design?

It’s not all about aerodynamics and focus groups – Lee also found inspiration for the new Santa Fe at Coscto. He told Motor Authority, “It’s unbelievable how big the parking lot is, you see thousands of cars over there. First thing that I question is what the heck am I supposed to do to make our car very special and be loved by customers when they have so many choices.” Viewed through this lens, it all makes perfect sense. The new Santa Fe is an SUV for people who are tired of driving the same old curvy SUV.

All they need to do is box it up, and take it home.

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