Design Trends: Lit Grilles Are On Fire Right Now

For more than a century carmakers have used the design of radiator grilles to help us clearly identify their cars from rival products. It’s the reason you can spot a BMW or Rolls Royce from miles away.

But you can’t spot grilles in the dark, so in recent years carmakers took advantage of improvements in lighting technology to create their own distinct headlight and daytime running light designs, allowing us to tell cars from one another in the dark. Cue another namecheck for BMW, because 20 years ago, the introduction of ‘halo’ headlights on the facelifted E39 BMW 5-series kickstarted a huge movement.

Now, though, manufacturers are increasingly fusing the two themes and illuminating their grilles, though like many trends, including the fad for folding hardtop coupe-cabriolets, which exploded in the 2000s but was based on a concept around since the 1930s, the idea isn’t exactly new.

Related: Design Trends: Super-Slim Headlights Are Taking Over

In the middle of the last century brands like Pontiac, Chrysler and British senior citizen fave Wolseley, dabbled with illuminated badge and hood emblems, and then in 1986, Mercury unleashed the Sable. Essentially a mildly reworked Ford Taurus, its most memorable feature was an illuminated panel linking the two headlights with the badge (the real radiator ‘grille’ was actually under the bumper), though technically, the full width illuminated panel most people remember (pictured above) didn’t arrive until 1989.

Mercury dropped the feature in the mid 1990s and the idea lay dormant until Mercedes dealers began offering illuminated three-pointed star grille badges in 2013. Fast forward to 2021 and fully-lit grilles are back in vogue. BMW, for instance, will sell you a pair of Iconic Glow illuminated kidney grilles in standard or M Performance styles.

As far as we can tell these are only available cars with regular-sized kidney grilles; you might need an extra battery and an alternator the size of an oil drum to fully illuminate the ones on a 4-Series, though Bimmer Jakes does offer an aftermarket kit for the X7 for $2,169.

Skoda, whose snouts already look so much like BMW’s the German company’s lawyers must be champing at the bit to drag them into court, also offers an illuminated grille on its new Enyaq EV. Or at least it did until the feature was quietly removed from the configurator (it’s scheduled to reappear later this year).

Mercedes-Benz’s new EQS electric sedan comes with an illuminated central star, but is also available with an optional 3D star matrix on its black grille panel, something we’ve seen more recently on the EQT minivan concept.

And Hummer’s new EV cleverly uses a segmented illuminated grille panel to highlight the H-U-M-M-E-R lettering across the nose.

Which, by the way, looks strangely similar to the front end of the new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer, though the posh Jeep’s illuminated name letters are lifted above the grille segments.

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Moreover, the Rolls Royce Ghost, owner of the most recognizable grille of them all, can be optioned with an illumination pack to ensure it looks just as imposing at night as it does in the day.

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But we’ve saved our favorites for last. Cadillac’s Lyriq design team managed to reinvent the brand’s famous crest by picking it out on a giant scale across the front of the new electric SUV. Approach the car and the badge lights up while the outline of the crest appears, almost as if it’s breaking into a smile because it’s so pleased to see you.

And we’ll finish with the Opel Manta GSe Elektromod. The fact that Opel slotted an electric drivetrain into a an early 1970s Series A Manta was pretty interesting, but far more relevant is its clever Pixel-Vizor front grille, which can be used to display messages and animations. We’d put money on that trend going interstellar.

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