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The Volkswagen Beetle's Formerly Friendly Face

On Monday, Volkswagen launched the 2012 Beetle, the second redesign of Volkswagen's most famous model. The original Beetle was in production for 65 years, the longest-running single design in automotive history; the car has also featured in movies ranging from The Love Bug to Dazed and Confused. The new Beetle (at right) has become slightly less curvy and lower to the ground to project what Volkswagen's design chief calls "a clean, self-confident and dominant sportiness." The design also echoes the original Beetle, as well as its aesthetic cousin, the Porsche 911. Many Beetle lovers, though, are unhappy that the new Beetle no longer has the simple, curvier design that many found very "cute." But what was the secret to its cuteness?

In 2008, anthropologists from the University of Vienna, consultants from the Austrian business consultancy EFS, and a professor from Florida State's computer science department explored the popular belief that different car designs project different personalities. Participants in the study "rated [38 different cars] on 19 traits." Then, "subjects were subsequently shown printed images of all the cars in random order," and asked "the extent to which they perceived this car to have a face." Finally, the participants marked what facial features they saw in each car.

The researchers found that though "people generally agreed in their ratings...The rating of car fronts was found to vary mainly along a single dimension which we identified as “power,” explaining 83% of trait variation. Perceived maturity had the greatest contribution to this vector, followed by the interpersonal attitudes of dominance, arrogance, anger, and hostility." Not surprisingly, the New Beetle was the second-least "powerful" of the 38 cars, beating (or trailing, depending on your point of view) the Nissan New Micra. (The most "powerful" cars? The BMW 5 series and 645ci.) These perceptions, the authors argue, have their basis in human facial proportions:

[T]he grids illustrate a shape change toward a larger windshield and a smaller car body in the direction of low “power.” This resembles the classic human (and, in the broader sense, mammalian) growth allometry pattern, with infants having a relatively larger neurocranium and a smaller face than adults...In almost all cars scoring high in “power,” the hood is elongated horizontally and at least resembles the protruding adult lower face.

No wonder Cars is getting a sequel.