Back in 2005, ostracion cubicus—or "the yellow boxfish"—was cited by Mercedes-Benz as having been the inspiration for the design of that company's "Bionic" concept car. The Bionic incorporated a lot of forward-looking tech, but is still mostly remembered for its shape: boxy.
Updated March 2022: Car trends come and go, and boxy designs are no exception. Simple, square shapes and sharp design cues can easily make a car look unattractive or outdated. However, carmakers continue to use this unique styling decision on many modern cars. We've updated this list with some more cars that pull off the boxy look and those that are due for a redesign.
M-B's engineers were trying to maximize efficiency with the Bionic's design, to squeeze the most out of the least in terms of fuel consumption. It turned out that what makes for efficient dynamics in water is very similar on land and through the air as well; a fluid medium stays a fluid medium.
The Bionic led to several subsequent generations of boxfish-looking cars as pretty much all other auto manufacturers have also pursued efficiency to meet increasingly stringent corporate fuel standards for their annual offerings. But boxy is neither completely new in the 21st century, nor is it always as unappealing as it might sound.
Here are 8 boxy cars that look great, and 8 that look, well... like boxes.
16 Good Box: 2011 Scion xB
Toyota's Scion marque was discontinued in 2016. The idea behind it was to appeal to younger buyers in North America who might find "Toyota" to be too closely associated with their parents' Camry sedan or pickup truck offerings. In this case, the model name was a riff on the well-known texting emoticon "XD". The latter is supposed to convey a laughing response. The idea is that the xB was a fun car, now that's the magic of marketing for you.
The crazy thing was that this model was more popular with middle-aged buyers than with the 20-30-year-olds that the company had targeted. Indeed, as it was transitioned off the market, Kia's competing version, the Soul, appeared as if by magic to take its place. It too has been a great success with middle-aged buyers looking for a compact "hatch" with a manual transmission for under $20,000.
15 Good Box: 1990 Ford Bronco
The Ford Bronco was a very boxy vehicle going all the way back to the 1960s when it was a very purpose-built off-road vehicle. The version that gained such notoriety in the 1990s was the first of the truck-based Broncos. In a way, that's a bad thing, though perhaps not entirely.
This Ford Bronco made off-road vehicles mainstream. It showed that a 4x4 could be rugged in the mud and be ruggedly handsome when it was all cleaned up. Solid in the city and the country, all at the same time. Also, this particular model, as we know, clearly demonstrated that an off-road vehicle could be "safely operated at freeway speeds..."
14 Good Box: 1990 Suzuki Samurai
Every once in a while a manufacturer stumbles onto a great formula: copy an enduring and popular classic, but undercut that classic's pricing: and that's exactly the case with Suzuki's funky compact off-roader, the Samurai - or Jimny if you're from Europe.
The Samurai was an affordable convertible runabout with on-demand 4WD, and it was pretty well-executed, particularly considering the segment it was competing against when it was first introduced. The model itself still exists to this day—albeit outside of North America—as the Suzuki Jimny.
13 Good Box: 1985 BMW E30 3-Series
Beauty lies in simplicity, and that's exactly what the E30 BMW embodies. Not only does the 3-Series look as gorgeous today as it did 40 years ago, but it also drives exceptionally too, and we'd recommend one for every motor enthusiast out there. Underneath its bland but beautiful exterior was a plethora of engine options ranging from eco-friendly 74 hp inline-fours to performance-focused 170 hp straight-six, as well a remarkable four-cylinder in the M3 version. Its ergonomic body shape, near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and rear-wheel-drive layout made the E30 perfect for any type of driver, especially ones who prefer to drive a bit more spirited than the average commuter.
12 Good Box: 1997 Volvo 850
There is a relatively famous scene from an old movie. In it, two creative types who work in advertising are trying to come up with an ad for Volvos. One of them suggests, "They're boxy, but they're good," and that was definitely true for Volvos of that time. Even at that, the 850 was special. It was the first straight-five engine most of us in North America had ever seen, and it was Volvo's first-ever front - and later all-wheel-drive offering.
There are other great Volvos from the 1990s (240s and 740s for example) but people who love to drive would hold onto their 850s with all of their might. Therefore, to this day, putting up an "850 for sale" notice in a Volvo repair shop is like throwing raw meat into a shark cage since they're some of the most underrated sleepers in existence.
11 Good Box: 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL
Back in the early days of the personal computing boom, somebody came up with a term to describe a piece of software that would be so great at one crucial function that everybody who owned a PC would have to buy a copy of it: "the killer app." If there is an automotive equivalent to the killer app, then the Jeep Wrangler is surely it. The best evidence of that status is that over 4 years after purchase, the resale value of a Wrangler is still over 50% of its sales price.
On the downside, it is also expensive to insure because for a large chunk of its history, people have confused the Wrangler with a roadster, or at least they have tended to drive them as if they did. That's not a good idea given the car's high ground clearance.
10 Good Box: 1995 Isuzu Trooper
As a corporation, Isuzu never has had a very developed network of dealerships in the USA. Certainly not when compared with other Japanese automakers like Toyota, Nissan, or even Subaru, so Isuzu products have often taken circuitous paths to get to the North American market.
That was very much the case with the Isuzu Trooper of the 1990s. When it finally came to North America, it was one of the first SUVs to venture into the luxury market. Later, the Trooper was one of the first in its market segment to offer an SUV in an RWD configuration.
All of which demonstrated that the appeal of the SUV in the USA was then beginning to shift from strictly off-road to suburban needs. The SUV was encroaching on the station wagon's territory for the first time, at least within North America's middle class.
9 Good Box: 1980 Toyota Land Cruiser
The legend of the M-B G-Class is that the design originated within the Iranian Army in the 1970s. In other words, it was a military vehicle executed by a luxury carmaker. The Jeep Wrangler, on the other hand, is based on the Willys Jeep which was born in the ravages of World War II.
Between those two extremes is the Toyota Land Cruiser, the one that the Japanese auto giant used to produce with an eye to the off-road market in its near neighbor, Australia. That one was so well-built and so rugged that many are still on the road, or perhaps off-road. The spirit of the Land Cruiser was resuscitated for a brief time in the North American market as its descendant, the FJ Cruiser, but now even that one is gone.
8 Bad Box: 2017 Mercedes-Benz G Wagon
If you have been on any car website - including this one - for longer than say 15 milliseconds then you know all about the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
The G-Class cars are the very definition of "boxy." However, the G-Class' high-top style is reflective of its unmatched off-road capability. As many have pointed out, the overwhelming number of them which are sold (especially in North America) will likely never see anything more challenging to their suspension system than a suburban drive-through speed bump, but this is still a classy vehicle.
There is somewhat of a cult following behind the G-Wagon, but its unchanged appearance and overrated reputation deem it a place on our list alongside some of the worst boxy vehicles on our list. The new 2022 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a whole other story, however.
7 Bad Box: 2014 Nissan Cube
Sometime in the last quarter of the 20th Century, the Japanese imports that had been known as "Datsuns" in the USA switched identities and became Nissans.
Then, the Alliance happened. Nissan joined forces with Renault in a scheme to battle Volkswagen on a worldwide scale, and it's been nearly three decades of insanity since. Well, perhaps not insanity, but much more fragmentation in terms of what's offered by Nissan USA.
The Cube is definitely boxy. Heck, it's right there in the name, isn't it? Its visible styling was a pretty impressive departure for production autos back in the 1990s, but as it moved onto the world stage during the first decade of the new century, the poor handling and weak power were too much to overcome, and it retreated to Japan in 2014.
6 Bad Box: 1975 AMC Gremlin
AMC - American Motors Corporation - was another company that was acquired by Renault. It was sensible because, of all the major US carmakers, AMC was most often the quirkiest, the most creative, and the most willing to take risks.
AMC itself had been born of the (perhaps unholy) fusion of a home appliance manufacturer with two of the classic nameplates from the history of the US auto industry.
MPG became the major watchword in terms of US car sales in the 1970s, and all manufacturers were on the lookout at the start of the decade for smaller car options. The story goes that AMC was unable to afford to produce a separate platform upon which they could produce such a "VW Beetle-beater," so they truncated one of their existing sedan chassis and the abrupt lines of Gremlins were born. The car wasn't that awful, nor does it linger in the memories of past owners as might the remembrances of first love...or a Porsche.
5 Bad Box: 1973 VW Thing
The main reason for the Thing being on this list of ugly boxes is that it is a WYSIWYG type of construction. That might not be so bad for some cars, but this one looks like a platypus (apologies to small, aquatic, egg-laying monotremes everywhere) on the outside and that's exactly what it is on the inside.
This one is another military vehicle turned consumer model. We're not entirely sure why VW would have produced this agglomeration for the West German military, and we can only guess as to how they got away with it, but The Thing was released into the wild at roughly the same as the Gremlin. Similarly, it was built on the carcass of its brethren: The Thing was part Beetle, part Minibus, and part...well, actually, we're still not sure.
4 Bad Box: 1990 Ford Foxbody Mustang
We have to confess that we're one of those weirdos who actually somewhat liked the second-generation Mustang's looks. Maybe because it represents the early '70s and there wasn't a lot of competition in the looks department back then, or maybe it's because we've always liked the very early 1970s Mach 1 look as well. Or maybe it's just because Lee Iacocca was a better salesman than most people give him credit for.
Not long after helping to birth the Mustang II, of course, Iacocca left Ford for Chrysler. Regardless of your opinion of that second generation, the Foxbody generation that was spawned shortly thereafter, was the nadir for America's favorite pony car.
As far as the Mustang was concerned, it would take another two decades, and the superhero-like intervention of Canadian Sid Ramnarace to turn that fox back into a pony. The Foxbody platform was spread thin, intending to mimic and rival GM's F-body lineup. For whatever reason, GM got it right—particularly in the Pontiacs of the 1970s —while Ford seemingly misfired at every turn.
3 Bad Box: 2011 Honda Element
The Honda Element shared its platform with its parent company's big selling crossover SUV, the CR-V. In practice, the Element - characterized by its high-top sneaker appearance - was much more of the "sport utility truck/vehicle" that Honda and other manufacturers have since sought to sell to buyers in the form of newer models which are based on small pickup platforms.
It had a unique design from the outside in; the side and rear entry doors were all configured to provide maximum access and were notable for their great height starting from just a few inches above curb level. The Element, on that basis, was a very popular car with dog owners for the full run of its roughly decade-long lifespan. But that all ended in 2011 - and we're so glad it did. The Element was dropped from Honda's line; overtaken by competitors' copy-cats, including the aforementioned xB and Kia Soul.
2 Bad Box: 2001 Pontiac Aztek
The Pontiac Aztek is considered by some to be the ugliest, as well as the worst car the world has ever seen, but we'd recommend not scratching your eyes out just yet, our worst boxy car is even uglier. The Pontiac Aztek was way ahead of its time, it created the sloping roof SUV design many car brands adopted the past few years, it came with some cool outdoor utilities like a built-in tent, and sleeping bag, but all of that was not enough to compensate for its awkward, plastic-covered, tacky exterior design. If the Aztek were to be sold in today's day and age, it might have just been a success if we're brutally honest... We do however have some advice we'd like to share: If you happen to have $3,000 lying around, and it's just itching to be spent - go and buy yourself a 2002 Aztek for under $3,000, drive it into the woods, park it in the river, and let it rot.
1 Bad Box: 1999 Fiat Multipla
Not only is the Fiat Multipla the ugliest car on our list, but it might just be the ugliest car to ever roam the earth. Italians are usually well-known for their acquisitive sense of style and impeccable design languages, but when Fiat developed the Multipla they threw every single ounce of logical thinking out the window and created... well whatever niche this horrendous monstrosity falls into. The Multipla had a lifespan of over a decade, and we can only assume those who bought these disgusting Fiats were old cat-ladies who couldn't properly distinguish the difference between the Multipla and the Panda, other than that, all other sales had to be fraudulent.