It's the next best thing to waving an ultraexclusive, invitation-only American Express black card in front of a maître d' — flashing a glamorous car key. Once mere utilitarian metal instruments, today's key fobs are fashionable and distinctive. The reason? Automotive manufacturers see fobs as a new way to enhance the customer experience and differentiate their products from the competition.
Bentley Director of Design and Styling, Dirk van Braekel, certainly took this into account as he created the design goals for the Flying Spur and Continental GT keys: "The design idea was to create a piece of jewelry, something special that an owner can hold, something that lives up to the Bentley vehicle and brings with it the Bentley status."
With that in mind, Bentley designer Brett Boydell embarked on a yearlong development process. When it was over, Boydell had created an exquisite piece of eye candy that, when placed on a bar, is instantly recognizable and would help even the most romantically challenged score a hot date.
Though Bentley's sparkling key fob is a sight to see, other automakers, such as Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz also have fobs that are designed to make you feel like a VIP. Automakers recognize that key fobs are a tangible aspect of the car ownership experience, valued by drivers for both their tactile and eye-catching qualities. According to Lexus Product Planning Manager Ben Mitchell, company research discovered that "especially with young people, keys do make a statement. The key is brought out and plunked down in various places, making it highly visible to others."
Here are our picks for 10 noteworthy key fob designs — in no particular order — for 2006.
1. Bentley Flying Spur and Continental GT
At the top of our list is Bentley's exquisitely designed key fob for the Continental GT and Flying Spur. The renowned Bentley flying wing logo is prominently situated on the back of the fob, with the Bentley signature "B" in black and white at the center of the wing, making the fob immediately identifiable. Just wave this glitzy fob at the bouncer and you're sure to get into any exclusive club or hot spot.
Take notice of the metallic texture, called "knurling," on the sides of the fob; similarly texturized metal is also used throughout the Bentley's interior. (See, for example, the shift knob and seat temperature controls.) According to van Braekel, "The easy part was to place the knurling on the open shell, but we also wanted the knurling in the bed where the key is stored. This was very difficult to achieve." The Bentley fob also has an obvious heft to it that bespeaks the car's craftsmanship. Lock, trunk-open and unlock functions are arranged vertically on the opposite side of the Bentley logo. Rubberized plastic also speaks to the fob's quality, as it makes gripping easier. Dirk van Braekel and his team have set the bar high in car key design. The key to a Bentley is everything a Bentley vehicle should be: glamorous, luxurious and eye-catching.
Behold Mercedes-Benz's innovative new fob, whose design is both stylish and functional. In addition to performing the standard lock, unlock, trunk-open and panic duties, the key's radio transmitter allows you to start the car without fumbling through your pocket or purse. Chrome surrounds the sides of the fob and a large Mercedes-Benz logo at the center reveals your discriminating taste in automobiles. According to Brent Sullivan, general sales manager of Mercedes-Benz Chicago, "For people that haven't had a Mercedes before, the key fob is always a pleasant surprise." Surely, the "when you've got it, flaunt it" crowd will be sporting this key at L.A.'s next envy expo.
3. Jaguar XK
Perhaps best known for its "skeleton key," Jaguar's newest offering, the sophisticated Jaguar XK, does away with the old-fashioned metal device. Jaguar's sleek new integrated key fob features a removable valet key, which also serves as the ring on which to attach your other keys. The valet key is inserted into the end of the squarish key fob. The sides of the fob are trimmed in sparkling chrome while the back displays "Jaguar" and the world-famous leaping cat logo. In addition to lock, unlock, panic and a trunk opener, the XK fob also features a button to illuminate the car's headlights as you approach it. Once inside, Jaguar's Smart Key System allows the driver to start the car simply by pressing the red "Start/Stop" button, eliminating annoying key fumbling. Whether you are a key flaunter, you can rest assured that your Jaguar XK fob will dangle prominently off any key ring.
4. Land Rover Range Rover Sport and LR3
Land Rover's Range Rover is famous for its ability to endure punishment, and the manufacturer's key fobs are a formidable match. Land Rover's Range Rover Sport and LR3 fobs feature a metal switchblade key housed inside heavy-duty plastic, which allows the fob to withstand a 30-foot drop onto concrete. Further, the fob's rubberized buttons allow it to survive submersion in up to 75 feet of water. There are three buttons on the fob: lock, unlock and an oval Land Rover logo button. The logo button can be programmed by the driver to operate the headlights, activate the alarm or even raise or lower the vehicle's suspension by 4.2 inches for hitching a trailer. Though the Land Rover's fob might not be the flashiest, its rugged design lives up to the vaunted Land Rover reputation for go-anywhere capability.
Audi is a trendsetter when it comes to key fob designs, developing the second-ever switchblade key design. (Mercedes was first, but has since abandoned the switchblade.) With the push of a small chrome button, the spring-loaded key pops out of its plastic holder. The redesigned Audi fob is more angular in design and integrates a panic button into its side, along with sleek chrome trim. Audi created the slick fob to prevent metal keys from ripping pocket liners.
One unfortunate caveat: The key fob can sometimes be confused for a switchblade, as was the case for Nathan Rau, an attorney in Minnesota and the proud owner of a 2003 Audi A4. Before a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, baggage screeners selected Rau for a visual bag check. According to Rau, after dumping the contents of his bag on the table, the inspector pulled out his car key and asked what it was for. Rau replied "my car," but his explanation was deemed unsatisfactory. After running his key through the X-ray machine three times, the screeners decided to confiscate it. Surprised and none too pleased, Mr. Rau reported the event to Audi. "When Audi got wind of the situation, they reimbursed me for the key," he said. Though stylish and functional, Audi's switchblade key is anything but lethal.
6. BMW 3, 5, 6 and 7 Series
Once only available on the top-of-the-line 7 Series, BMW's new key fob is now standard on the 3, 5 and 6 Series as well, and is being phased in the next generation of BMW's other series. This new fob doesn't have a key at all; instead, the fob itself is inserted into a slot on the dashboard to activate the push-button start. This unique fob features three steel buttons that unlock, open the trunk and illuminate the headlights. The lock button is disguised as a BMW logo near the center of the rectangular key. The fob's design remains true to the Teutonic theme of BMWs in general; it dictates that form follows function — no flashy chrome can be spotted. However, for fashionistas of the car key world and even casual onlookers, a quick glance is all that is needed to reveal your car's unquestionable cachet.
Though nothing like a Bentley or a Mercedes-Benz fob, the latest Lexus fob is unique in its own right. "Even how the key feels in your hand was a consideration for our design," remarked Lexus' Mitchell. Made of silver-colored plastic, the current Lexus fob was sculpted with unique curves to rest naturally in your palm. Lock and unlock buttons are implanted into the plastic while the trunk-open and panic buttons sit on a convex surface. A new card key will debut on the Lexus LS 600h, coming in April 2007. As thin as one or two credit cards, it will feature an embossed "L" mark in chrome. The card key will act as an electronic identification for the vehicle, granting both keyless entry and engine startup.
8. Volvo S80
Volvo has always taken car key design seriously. In fact, 11 years ago Volvo started a design study concerning the family concept car. Out of that project came a striking key fob design, aspects of which were used for the design of the upcoming 2007 Volvo S80 key. Abandoning the traditional metal key, Volvo's latest key design relies on a slot for the ignition. This allowed designers the freedom to create a thin rectangular key fob with unique LED lights that greatly enhance driver safety, long a hallmark of Volvo vehicles. The LED lights provide information such as whether the car is locked and whether the alarm is active. Also, the key can read Volvo's interior heartbeat sensor, a first in the industry. If someone is hiding in the car, the sensor alerts the driver via the LED lights, thus making trips to the parking lot less worrisome at night.
Infiniti is known for integrating new technologies into its products, and its key is no different. Like some of the more advanced designs on our list, Infiniti offers keyless access. The thin, oval shape of the Infiniti key is unobtrusive when stored in a pocket or purse. Three aluminum buttons are placed vertically around the black plastic oval that also features the Infiniti logo above the lock button. The key's shape is streamlined, sleek and futuristic, just like an Infiniti.
Cadillac is introducing a totally redesigned fob unique to the luxury brand in 2007. The sleek new fob has a distinctive semicircular shape with the signature Cadillac wreath-and-crest insignia on the reverse side. Metallic accents help to differentiate the buttons on the fob and add a sense of modernity to the overall design. Plus, the new fob features a button to start the vehicle from the outside — perfect for owners residing in colder climates. Finally, Cadillac has a fob worthy of its new line of vehicles.