It's the moment of impact. That microsecond when you first see a car and you become transfixed, unable to alter your gaze because that car, at that instant, in that context is perfect. It's not necessarily the best-looking car in some sort of academic way, or even good-looking according to people with "taste." But it's a car with looks that hit you in the gut. It's unforgettable.
By our gut-punching standards, these 10 current production cars and trucks are the best-looking rides of 2011. A couple of them are perfect sculptures on wheels. A few push the boundaries of our expectations. And at least one is an idiosyncratic selection.
Each could simply be described as cool and tough. They stand out in the world of same. Each is long, low and wide, just as Harley Earl, Marcello Gandini, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Bill Mitchell and Larry Shinoda taught the world cars should be.
This isn't a beauty contest. These aren't the prettiest cars. They're the 10 cars that get the best reaction out of us and we listed them in no particular order.
Ferrari 458 Italia
If there was one obvious choice for this list, this is it. But it's not like any car would make this list solely by being a Ferrari. The 458 Italia is a return to perfect proportions for the "entry level" midengine Ferrari.
Look at it in profile; it's a single graceful arc from the split front nose to the three tailpipes. Look how the wheels are pushed out just as far as possible; there's barely any rear overhang at all. After the vulgar F360 and F430 with their overwrought scoops, the 458 Italia's intakes are almost hidden in the sweep of the shape.
There have been only two great Ferrari midengine V8 sports car designs. The first is the 1975 308 GTB, running through all its derivatives including the 288 GTO and F40. And the 458 Italia is the second.
A year ago the idea of a Kia making this list would have seemed absurd. Every vehicle in the Korean manufacturer's line pushed the boundaries of awkward styling. It was impossible to say what a Kia looked like, even if there was one parked in your garage.
Then along comes the new 2011 Optima. Looking how the Maserati Quattroporte should look, the Optima is sleek in a way no other Kia has ever been. And it's aggressive and masculine in a way its platform-mate, the Hyundai Sonata, isn't. Everything about the Optima, from the vents in its front fenders to its perfectly shaped sideview mirrors and the kink in its rear door windows, is designed to be noticed. It's detailed artistically and proportioned just right.
With the Optima, Kia has set itself a high standard to which it must now live up.
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Ford's F-150 SVT Raptor is simply the toughest and meanest-looking light truck ever built.
The Raptor packs its visual wallop because all its unique bits are there to make it function better off-road. The engorged front fenders are there to cover oversize tires that ride at the ends of longer suspension arms to increase wheel travel. SVT wasn't going to spend money on new headlights, so by chunking out a piece of the front fenders to accommodate the standard F-150 buckets, something even better emerged. The Raptor's near-monster stance isn't an affectation; it's a promise.
A promise kept by the truck's skid plates, Fox shocks, oversize suspension links and 4x4 drivetrain. This is the first truck built to fly. And it looks the part.
Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon
There was every reason to be skeptical when Cadillac put the 2003 CTS into production and brought the "Art and Science" themes to the world's roads. All the subsequent Cadillacs since then have been styled around that "design language," but until the 2011 CTS Sport Wagon none of them got it exactly right.
The CTS Sport Wagon gets it exactly right.
What makes the Sport Wagon work so well is that it's truly a sport wagon. It's not a wagon for families with a half-dozen kids and it's not a wagon destined for use as a shuttle between the airport and Holiday Inn Express. It's sleek, personal and aggressive, with just the right amount of muscle-car-ness baked into its shape. Elegant? Um, not so much. Badass? Hell yeah, like no other Caddy has ever been.
And of course it looks even better as the CTS-V Wagon.
If NASA designed a car it would likely look like the LFA. And it would probably be even more expensive.
This is a hard-edged stiletto of a car. It's not just cutting through the air; it's slicing it up into easily digestible cubes. With its big V10 mounted forward of the driver but behind its front wheels, the LFA comes by its exaggerated proportions naturally — in relation to its overall length, this car's nose is radically long. But that's the not the most startling design element of Lexus' obscure supercar. With its rear-mounted radiators and thick scoops to feed them, the LFA has an alien vibe that's unique and can only be appreciated from behind. One day its exhaust system will be recognized for the modern art it is.
This is a $375,000 exotic car that doesn't mimic any previous high-performance machine. Just when it seemed as if everything that could be done had been done, along comes the LFA to prove otherwise.
No other sedan has the sheer presence of the Panamera. It isn't timelessly beautiful like a Ferrari 250 GTO or even handsome in any conventional sense. Its oversized skin isn't elegant and except for a bit around the headlights and taillights, it doesn't even really look like a Porsche.
But the Panamera is severe, unique and it looks even more expensive than it is. When you come upon a Porsche Panamera from behind, you know exactly what it is because its taillights appear to be several yards apart. Remember, long, low and wiiiiiiiiiide.
What's undeniable is that the Panamera has redefined what a big German luxury sedan should and can be. This isn't a clone of the Mercedes S-Class; it's aggressive where the BMW 7 Series is stodgy and the Audi A8 looks like the box the Panamera came in. This is the first German flagship since the battleship Bismarck to be so menacing.
Audi A5 and S5
There's something classical about Audi's A5 and S5 coupes. It's the long hood and short deck. It's the open front grille and a tail that finishes in an elegant kick. That's old-school European GT stuff like the Ferrari Lusso of the '60s or Lancia Aurelia of the '50s. Yeah, the Audi is German, but the A5/S5 is the sort of car that makes you want to drive through Italy shouting "Ciao, bella!" at every pretty girl as you drive by.
Yet there's something other than a mere nostalgic edge in the A5/S5's shape. Maybe it's the lazy S-curve character line that runs along its length, or the plumpness of its hips, but this car looks almost organic: like a perfect river stone buffed in a rock polisher.
Beyond that, the A5/S5 is blessed with some of the best automotive jewelry ever made. The headlights themselves, with their LED and halogen elements, are works of industrial art. The door handles are perfect half-ellipsis shapes. There are whole cars that don't have the visual firepower of the A5/S5's sideview mirrors. The more you stare at this car, the more there is to love.
This is the way European GTs are meant to look.
Audi R8 Spyder
Audi's R8 Spyder is just sexy. Not porn star sexy. That's for Lamborghini. The R8 Spyder is Victoria's Secret sexy.
Back in her prime, before she had the kids and too many birthdays, Heidi Klum boldly referred to herself as "The Body." Well, the R8 Spyder mixes that female form with classic Audi cues, leading-edge details and a tough-guy edge. And the result is freakishly harmonious. A modern beauty that excites both men and women.
Top up or down, there's nothing about the R8 that shouldn't be there. This car stops people on the street, but it doesn't just get attention, it earns affection. Its shape is both rational and emotional, but never vulgar. Its tail doesn't wear some oversized silly wing and its flanks have been spared the gaping gills found on most midengine supercars.
She's all natural. And this body will age gracefully.
Jaguar XKR Coupe
Ian Callum designs cars that must be viewed on the road. And the XKR Coupe is one of his best. Callum understands stance, and the XKR coupe's coke bottle shape riffs perfectly from the Ferrari 250 GTO and 250 SWB, just as Callum did years before when he penned the Aston Martin Vanquish.
Driving behind an XKR is one of life's great pleasures. Notice its wide hips, sensually sculpted forms and the unique way its stance is further defined by its rear hatch and unusual cut lines. And its exhaust pipes? Four. Each placed perfectly, right in sync with the circular portion of the Cat's taillights.
This is what Jaguars should look like. Elegant. Masculine. Muscular. Yet never overwrought.
Dodge Challenger SRT8
The perfect muscle car is bold, unapologetic and maybe a bit over-decorated. The scoops, stickers and bright colors that would be tasteless on a normal car are integral elements that make a muscle car an object of desire. And there haven't been many muscle cars that look better than the current Dodge Challenger SRT8.
The Challenger packs just the right proportions, stance and eye candy to be shockingly handsome. But its magic ingredient is its aggression. The Challenger is not looking for a fight, but it'll punch somebody. If you start something, it's ready to finish it.
And that's called a muscle car.
Walk around a Challenger SRT8 and you can't help but enjoy its hood scoops, 6.4-liter Hemi badges and that chrome fuel door. Look up front. Those yellow lights, deep-set grille and hood stripes define "cool." Out back? Big pipes and taillights. Oh, and a simple black spoiler that's just right.
It was all designed by Michael Castiglione. And he designed a masterpiece.