For years, auto designers lavished attention on the grilles of cars, both for their function and for their brand identity. Now designers seem to be lowering their sights.
They have shifted their focus to openings in the sides of the front bumpers. Designers call these cooling-air intakes, but after looking at them long enough, a casual observer might think of them as nostrils.
"The term 'nostrils' makes sense, because these are where the vehicle breathes," says Bryan Thompson, an independent designer who has worked at Nissan.
Vehicles' faces seem to be showing larger and more expressively formed nostrils.
There are functional reasons for these aids to heavy breathing: Modern high-efficiency engines require more air for cooling, and designers are under pressure to improve aerodynamics for the sake of fuel efficiency.
But prominent vents in a vehicle's fascia also play into designers' desire to make cars appear wider and lower. They help to compensate visually for pedestrian-protection regulations and other factors that have raised cars' front ends.
"You have to have some sort of detail to fill up that dull space," Thompson says.
As with grilles, the larger nostrils can make cars look more powerful, more sporty or more elegant and provide common cues across a brand's model lineup.
"They are getting more necessary for cooling and for aero as well," says Moray Callum, vice president for design at Ford. "But they are also getting more and more expressive because we are using every way we can to give a car a little bit more of its own signature."
No marque has historically emphasized nostrils so much as Lamborghini, whose logo is a bull with flaring nostrils and whose models have often been named after famous fighting bulls. Fittingly then, large, flared nostrils like those on the new Huracán are an important a part of the traditional Lambor-ghini face, says Filippo Perini, the head of Lamborghini's Centro Stile studio.
The large double openings "are part of our design DNA," he says. "We work on the face of the car first. We are always trying to give to the car an expression with a face, eyes, nose. These let the car say to you, 'I'm aggressive‚' or 'I'm polite.' "
In addition to engine and brake cooling, some nostrils direct air through the front wheel wells to reduce drag.
There is considerable variety in how nostril designs are expressed. Many nostrils are faced with aggressive black mesh textures, while others are framed in chrome or increasingly these days accented with jewellike LEDs, often in a tube configuration. Bejeweled nostrils are seen in the Range Rover Evoque, for instance.
Sometimes what appears to be a nostril does not admit air at all but is given over to a lamp of some sort — or just a blacked-out panel. The chrome or lamp can change the design message of nostrils, indicating a more expensive model or trim level.
Whether as a functional vent or simply a lamp holder, the nostril is a handy device for designers playing on resemblances within a brand family. For instance, various Buick models make extensive use of nostrils as accents, including the upright slash of the Regal GS's aperture.
Judging from the cars featured at automotive shows, there may be even bigger nostrils to come. For instance, the Toyota FCV, a design study for the future hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, has nostrils as large as a Lamborghini's.