Six car facelifts that didn't work out

Graham Hope

25 Nov 2021

When cosmetic surgery doesn't have the desired effect

The facelift is a tried and tested formula that makes perfect sense. At broadly the midpoint of its life cycle, a car will be updated with cosmetic changes, or fresh tech, or a new engine – or sometimes all three – in a bid to keep it competitive against more modern rivals. Obviously, the point of a facelift is to give the car renewed appeal in the eyes of buyers, but sometimes the revisions don’t quite go to plan. Here are six cars that were arguably less appealing after they went under the knife.


Hyundai Coupe


Hard though it may be for 2021 buyers to believe, Hyundai was not the force it is now in the 1990s. Back then it was considered much more of a budget brand, with its cars falling some way short in terms of desirability. And that’s what made the Coupe, launched in 1996, such a breath of fresh air. Although nothing revolutionary under the skin, it looked genuinely appealing, with more than one car magazine hailing it for delivering the style of a Ferrari at a pocket money price. Having finally delivered a car with the ‘X factor’, then, it was hard to imagine what the thinking was behind the 1999 update. The simplicity of the original was horribly distorted at the front with a four-headlight design that was fussy, and frankly, plain ugly. All the good work had been undone.

Skoda Yeti


Who, in their right mind, would call a car Yeti? But somehow the name proved ideal for this wilfully idiosyncratic Skoda, launched in 2009, that was brilliantly capable both on road and off and absolutely adored by its owners, who regularly voted it into the top spot in satisfaction surveys. The boxy design suited it perfectly, with the inset foglights at the front, in particular, helping shape the car’s fun character. In 2014, however, the cheeky Yeti was called to the headmaster’s office and told to wear the same uniform as the rest of the Skoda line-up. The result was a generic, corporate face that was instantly forgettable and, on the Monte Carlo edition (pictured), a contrasting roof that even disguised the boxiness. The Yeti’s days as the maverick of the range were over.


Fiat Multipla


Very few cars make quite as dramatic a first impression as the Multipla. The six-seat MPV – with its two rows of three seats – was an astonishing looking vehicle that caused a sensation on its debut in 1998. Odd proportions, bug eyes and a rather strange extra pair of lights were unquestionably an acquired taste, and even today the Multipla looks like it has arrived from another planet – little wonder it regularly crops up in discussions over the ugliest cars ever. Aware that the car’s controversial looks were costing it sales, Fiat reined it in 2004 with a heavily revised front end that was much more conventional. Here’s the thing, though – without the aid of a picture, would you remember what it looked like? Almost certainly not. One of the most striking cars of the past 30 years had been rendered anonymous by a facelift.



BMW 7 Series


That the German company produces cars that are great to drive is beyond dispute. But it’s made one or two design faux pas over the years, and its latest direction has failed to convince many. The firm seems to be going out of its way to prove that bigger is not always better with its rapidly expanding grilles, and the facelifted 7 Series from 2019 provides a fine example why. Before the revisions, the car was standard BMW fare – not a classic looker, but inoffensive enough. However, once revisions were applied and it emerged with an ostentatious oversized grille, all bets were off. The fans were not happy, and among the more acidic comments on a Reddit threat dedicated to the facelift was the observation that “it looks like a huge tumour pulling down its face”. Withering.


Saab 9-5


It’s now a decade since Saab went bankrupt and the motoring world lost the quirky Swedish manufacturer for good. But the writing had been on the wall for years, after General Motors had taken full control in 2000 but failed to provide the investment the company needed. This meant Saab was forced to continue to sell ageing cars such as the 9-5, which increasingly fell further and further behind rivals. Of course, one way of keeping a model relevant is by slapping on some lipstick, but the 2005 facelift of the 9-5 fell flat. The rather unpleasant chrome headlight surrounds saw it pick up an unfortunate nickname, Dame Edna – after the outlandish glasses worn by Aussie TV star Dame Edna Everage – and it was widely seen as an ill-advised attempt to make an old car look contemporary.


Honda NSX


The original NSX, developed with input from the legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, is an absolute icon. On its launch in 1990, it was a bona fide game changer – a technical tour de force, with an aluminium monocoque chassis, that was as easy to drive at low speeds as it was thrilling to pilot at full pelt. And it looked good too, with a classic, timeless design inspired by the HP-X concept penned by Italian styling house Pininfarina. The facelift of 2002 didn’t ruin things entirely, but it arguably diminished its appeal. The pop-up headlights were replaced by oversized integrated ones, and the front of the car just looked that little bit less focused and sharp. Proof that details matter on a facelift.






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Graham Hope

25 Nov 2021