I can’t be the only one who found it a little funny that press releases “2022 Hyundai Tucson Adds Rugged XRT Trim” and “2022 Honda Passport Arriving with Rugged New Styling” dropped the same day. Adding unpainted black cladding to make a car appear more outdoorsy is not a new concept, but it’s definitely a hot trend right now.

Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What HappenedWhy It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.

What Happened

Honda has released the TrailSport trim of its Passport small SUV, which could also be called a crossover because the line between is pretty blurry these days. The TrailSport will cost around $44,000 (just below the vehicle’s top “Elite” trim). Its kit includes the black exterior trim pieces, a unique grille, orange accent stitching inside, tires with a sidewall tread “design” “for a more rugged look” (all-terrain tires were not mentioned), and a “10mm increase in track width to improve stance and stability” according to the above-linked release. That last bit just means the wheels are 10mm further apart left-to-right than the other trims, which is probably achieved by the wheel’s offset (basically, how deep the lug bolts are) or a tiny little spacer between the wheel and hub. How much impact it would have on performance practically speaking is tough to say.

As for Hyundai, its new XRT Tucson is considerably cheaper (about $35,000) than the Honda and its unique features are similar: A bunch of black trim pieces and a dark-colored interior.

Those two vehicles have many other differences of course, but we’re just talking about shared design trends here.

On a related note, the vibe here is similar to the Mazda CX-50 (crossover plus cladding), Subaru Outback Wilderness (still technically a wagon but looking quite crossovery these days).

Why It Matters

When SUVs really started getting popular as daily drivers, which in my memory is the early ’90s, it was not because everybody was suddenly taking up off-roading as a hobby. People like(d) this aura of adventurousness and independence that a 4×4 conveys, and were willing to put up with the rough driving dynamics and abysmal fuel economy of that era’s trucks to get it.

Fast-forward to today and tastes haven’t really changed, but technology has. And automakers have realized that it’s not hardcore rock-crawling capability most consumers are after; people just want to feel confident about making it home from grandma’s if it snows on Christmas and navigate a few roots and ruts that might be in a KOA campground driveway.

Modern all-wheel drive and traction control systems can handle that no problem, and with decent tires, one of these new crossovers would be plently comfortable even hauling down a rough dirt road which is about as wild as most casual adventurers are wont to get anyway.

All this to say: I think that while the appeal of off-roadiness in a car is still strong, a lot of the vehicle-buying public is recognizing that their family will be more comfortable in something like a Hyundai Tucson than a Jeep Wrangler, but features like this XRT trim split the difference.

Did you think I was going to go all cynical and call these cars posers? Nah. I’m all about decorative features like plastic flares and accent stitching. Honestly, things like that end up looking less posery than a pristine Hi-Lift jack or never-filled jerry can mount bolted to a spotless Tacoma most of the time anyway.

What To Look For Next

If there really is a migration toward electrified cars or some bigger push to prioritize efficiency, a lot of the soul that some of us see in cars is going to get ironed out. Oh, yeah, this is where the post gets a little cynical. I think we can expect to see a lot more cars dressed up to look tough, versus looking tough because they are tough, to try and recapture some old-school cool energy.

The Land Rover Defender is a great example of this in action, too. The ’90s Defender was and is aggressively utilitarian; you drowned in character driving one of those because it was such a jarring experience forcing you to be present. Driving the new one is no such experience — it’s smooth, quiet, comfortable. Sure, it’s more off-road capable, but it just doesn’t have its predecessor’s soul. A car needs to make you suffer a little bit to really have soul. But since it seems most consumers want to interact with the world like everything’s a phone app, I predict you’re going to see more and more vehicles have the equivalent of decorative black cladding replacing a visceral driving experience.