You might think me fixated on tail lights, but these days they are almost all too big, too similar, and add very little distiction to the design of the cars they grace. I remember as a kid, riding in the car at night and being able to ID the cars going the other way by the tail lights. Forget about trying that these days.
Here are a few schools of design in the current crop of tail lights:
1) Completely Random Shapes: I think Infiniti really got things going in this department with the G35 Coupe. But others have jumped in, notably BMW, and Honda (Civic sedan). A large subset of this school is the random intersecting blobs, a fine example of which grace the back of Toyota Avalons these days. What is that stuff doing on the trunk lid? Why are they that odd shape and size? Did they shrink in the wash?
2) Tail light as fender: Initially part of the Completely Random Shape School, this movement has broken off with designs pioneered by Lexus and Toyota. Currently, Nissan takes the prize at this with the new Nissan Altima Sedan. The entire top and much of the side of the fender is part of the tail light, aft of the C-pillar. Why not build the whole car out of plastic?
3) Clusters Under Glass: These are almost passe now, but were cool when Lexus did them on the RS400 crossover. Once again, the Nissan Altima Sedan seems to have the biggest, most over the top example.
4) Anything LED: Caddilac got this going a while back (who'da thunk it) but now Audi, Land Rover, and BMW are getting on the bandwagon, and with a dollop more creativity than the guys at Caddy ever thought to use. I saw a Land Rover LED light cluster just today, and its pretty cool. You cant tell in the pic below, but the top lens is both the brake light, with red LEDs clustered in the center, and the directional signal, with yellow LEDs circling the edge. I think the bottom lens is the backup light. I like the understatement, alot.
So, you may ask, anything else good out there? Well, I like the HHR solution. Oddly similar to the Land Rover, but about 10,000 times cheaper. The '97 Toyota Camry had slim, horizontal red bezels that were simple and elegant. That was just before they moved towards the Completely Random Shapes school of thought. The current Honda Civic Coupe has tail lights that are not too big, fit their context, and work to reinforce the identity of the car. Anything else? Ummmm.... lets see now.
At least LEDs have a lot of promise of bringing more elegant, svelte solutions to tail lights. Lets hope it happens.