Home » How We Open Trunks And Rear Hatches Has Sneakily Become Standardized And I Don’t Like It

How We Open Trunks And Rear Hatches Has Sneakily Become Standardized And I Don’t Like It

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I have a complicated relationship with standardization. On one hand, I love it. And think there should be a lot more standardization of car parts, especially for things like EV battery sizes, or perhaps how sometimes I long for the days when there were only two kinds of headlights, round or rectangular, and they were dirt cheap.

But then when I think about what rampant standardization could mean, I get horrifying visions of everything inexorably marching towards sameness, and that sounds like a nightmare. So I appreciate a world where problems have wildly different solutions. Sometimes, though, standards just seem to happen, and I think we’re at a point where a huge standard has definitely taken root, and no one is talking about it. Except me! I will remain silent no more! I’m officially decreeing the way we open trunks and hatches by feeling blindly around under the lip over a license plate hereby standardized!

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That’s right! This has been happening, quietly for decades, right under our noses, and the time has come to just call it. This method of opening a hatch has won. It’s finished. So let’s take the time to note this, name it, examine it, and accept it.

First, let’s look at the World Before, when there were many ways to open the rear hatch or trunk of a car. Let’s just look at some examples from one automaker, Honda. Here’s a few samples of Hondas from the 1970s to 1980s, and where they had their trunk- or hatch-opening handles or latches:

Honda Before

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Look at all that dazzling variety! Latches and handles of all manner of shapes, some metal, some plastic, some emblazoned, proudly, with the Honda logo, some chromed, some large, some tiny – it was really a time where anything went.

Of course, sometimes, a bit more rarely, you’d even see these on the fronts of cars:

356handle1

And now, look at these Hondas from more recent times (and one from the 90s, when all of this really got started):Honda After

See that? All the tailgate latches are now in the same basic place: under the lip, above the license plate, sharing a space with the license plate lights. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the incidents of people physically touching license plate light lenses has increased dramatically since the 1990s, and shows no signs of stopping, as we’re always letting our fingers roam and explore under those little lips, fingering the license plate lights, as we feel for the little rubberized or plastic buttons that will get our hatches and trunks open.

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I’m trying to think of modern-ish exceptions to this rule, and while I think there are some, they’re quite few, and some of these exceptions have pretty large mitigating circumstances. For example, consider the Ford EcoSport, which we got here in America from around 2018 to 2022. This little crossover had its rear door handle integrated, strangely, into the right side taillight:

Ecosport Taillightlatch

… but that was only because the hatch opens sideways, like a door, not a hatch. The Mitsubishi Mirage is another example, and I think it enjoys the freedom to have an actual, visible handle still because it stubbornly remains one of the cheapest cars on the market.

Mirageholdout

Pickup truck tailgates also tend to retain their prominent, visible handles, at least in part because license plates tend not to be mounted on truck tailgates.

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Mavericktailgate

Speaking of truck tailgate handles, I really feel like the Jeep J10 tailgate handle is worth remembering here because it was just a repurposed AMC door handle, in a beautiful example of AMC cheapskate-creativity:

 

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A post shared by The Autopian (@theautopian)

But for the vast majority of the current automotive world, the Hidden Handle (okay, let’s call it that) has won. And it’s across the spectrum of cars, too. Here’s the handle hiding under the chrome strip of a Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the same damn basic thing lurking under the lower lip of that Nissan Versa trim strip or under the lower edge of the tailgate on that Mercedes-Benz EQS:

Morehiddens

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The point is, the Hidden Handle has become near-ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. And, visually, it’s nowhere. Which leads to my big issue with the Hidden Handle:

Sure, it’s slowly and stealthily crept onto almost every car, but do any of us really like these things? Really? Don’t we all spend way too much time sliding our fingers under those often dirty lips and edges, feeling around for which little lumpy bit is the button to open the trunk?

How often have you tried to push on a license plate light to get a hatch open? How often have you gotten frustrated and craned your head low to look under there, to see if you can spot just where you need to get your fingers to make the damn trunk open? Wouldn’t you rather have a latch you can see and satisfyingly operate, especially if it’s interesting, or fun, or both?

I suppose the thinking is that with so many key fobs having trunk- or hatch-open buttons, the physical handle on the car just doesn’t matter as much. And that may be true. Until you need it.

I’m guessing these sorts of hatch or trunk releases are cheaper to install, as they don’t really need to be as robust? Maybe? I’m just not sure how they’re better than an actual handle or latch you can see.

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Sure, designers may appreciate the cleanliness of not having to design or install another component, but come on, they could figure out some nice solutions, too!

I’m just bitter that this has sneakily become the default, and I wasn’t consulted. Not even once.

Oh well. I think this is likely here to stay, the Hidden Handle, so I really should make my peace with them. But I don’t think I’ll ever like them.

 

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BobWellington
BobWellington
29 days ago

Early Explorers and Expeditions had a twist handle that was really easy to use and you turned it one way for the glass and the other way for the whole hatch.

Madewithgenuineparts
Madewithgenuineparts
29 days ago

No love for VW Golf, Passat B6, CC, Eos, Tiguan MK1 etc?

R Hum
R Hum
30 days ago

Put me on Team Standardization for the trunk latch. I drove an 08 Focus for years (great little car), but the trunk was a pain to open. It had a seal the made it hard to open, and no real handle to pull on. There was a recess below the trunk lip on the top of the bumper, but it would fill with water in the rain, and during the winter was mostly full of slush.
I upgraded a few years later to a 16 Fusion and it had a button on the key fob, and one on the dash. I drove that car for 3 years before I realized it had a button over the license plate.
Lastly, I travel frequently and I like that most cars that you rent have the button to open the trunk or hatch in the same place and something to pull up on. Standardization in this feature rules!

TaylorDane > TaylorSwift
TaylorDane > TaylorSwift
30 days ago

Could manufacturers just put a small braille-like marker on the upper lip to represent where the release is at? It wouldn’t ruin the design. Would save us all from smudging the rear-view camera and/or a tag light (which can get hot with incandescents) before finally finding the right place? The releases are not always centered, depending on make.
And yes, if your car could talk there’s probably a “That’s not it….” joke in there somewhere.

Chump Change
Chump Change
30 days ago

I’m sure this article has words and such that make for an interesting point, but I’m just excited to see that Jason posted a picture of a first generation Honda Civic Wagon on the site. Sure its just a close up of the rear hatch with absolutely no reference to the actual car, but damn it, beggars can’t be choosers!

Fanfoy
Fanfoy
1 month ago

I guess none of you guys have lived in a rust-belt/shitload of snow area. No rear handle survives more than 10 years around here in Quebec. The salty spray from the road that renders the back window opaque with a white salty residue absolutely destroys rear handles. No matter how good they are engineered. Even my old trusty 2004 xc70 Volvo (which was the last car I owned with a rear hatch handle) succumbed to it. The mechanism gets rustier and rustier until you try to force it and something breaks. I welcome the hidden rubber-covered button.

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
1 month ago

One thing that I don’t like is that they often have rubber strips on top of the latch release, and if it gets super hot, they can fall off on some vehicles.

Martin Ibert
Martin Ibert
1 month ago

My Opel Adam hatch opens upon pressing the lower half of the Opel emblem on it in. No rubber condom fondling required.

Aaron Slater
Aaron Slater
1 month ago

My 2023 Escape has a separate handle (bonus points for kick sensor, too?) https://flic.kr/p/2pDyFFW

Last edited 1 month ago by Aaron Slater
Jantje
Jantje
1 month ago

The EQS (SUV) actually utilizes the rear logo as the tailgate handle!

Holly Birge
Holly Birge
1 month ago

For the most part, I agree. However, I think VW has designed their latches brilliantly — it’s the car logo! And I get a bit of glee every time I flip that VW logo to open the hatch on my car.

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
1 month ago
Reply to  Holly Birge

It’s sooooo satisfying!

Vc-10
Vc-10
29 days ago
Reply to  Holly Birge

The backup camera is also often hidden behind it too, it pops out when you’re backing up.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
1 month ago

My Hiace work van has a classic example of the Hidden Handle, which is also the hiding place of the reversing camera.
My BA Fairlane Ghia has no handle at all on its bootlid – you are expected to hook your fingers under the bottom edge to lift it after activating the electric release, which lets it lift very slightly.
My favourite unusual boot release was the ‘knob’ on the bootlid of Leyland P76s. It was a rectangular knob that you turned to release the latch, and locking the boot was achieved by a key lock in the centre of the knob that stopped it from turning.

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 month ago

Think the last hatchback I had with the physical latch was a PT Cruiser, and it was the Chrysler logo you pulled on. Everything since then with a hatch so basically since 2010, has had the button deal.

Seems like they work ok but I do miss the mechanical ones. Of course if we do get another hatch it’ll probably have the power liftgate as that’s now becoming more common.

Bearddevil
Bearddevil
1 month ago

Didn’t forget the VW GTI/Golf where the logo on the back hatch was the handle! I really liked that about them.

Holly Birge
Holly Birge
1 month ago
Reply to  Bearddevil

I just made the same comment. I think it’s super clever.

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
1 month ago
Reply to  Bearddevil

Absolutely brilliant design, I get a kick every time I use it.

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
1 month ago

I have to believe some of this is related to minimizing the force required to operate the mechanism. People with limited grip or finger strength will have trouble with the pinscher mechanism of button + fixed handle, whereas a hinged handle that you pull allows arm strength as an assist.

Last edited 1 month ago by Highland Green Miata
Myk El
Myk El
1 month ago

Most sedans and coupes have gotten rid of external trunk releases entirely, so I guess something is better than nothing on the exterior.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
1 month ago
Reply to  Myk El

Gotten rid of? Did sedans and coupes ever have external trunk releases as a rule? That not what I’m used to.

Myk El
Myk El
1 month ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Not sure of your age, but my first two cars had separate keys (not remote) to open the trunk versus the door and ignition. Admittedly, they were both older than I was, but nevertheless. Going further back, my dad had cars from the 40s and 50s that had actual handle latches. But mostly I was thinking of trunks which worked on a physical release with a key inserted and twist.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
1 month ago
Reply to  Myk El

Gotcha. I don’t think the keyhole latches really count, because they kinda suck and the inside trunk popper is totally the main means of opening it

Myk El
Myk El
1 month ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I don’t really feel like they sucked, but again, grew up with that. I do, however, like being able to open the trunk on a car with a dead battery as that’s where most people keep the jumper cables/jumpstarter box. But basically nobody has that anymore. Unless you’re already physically IN the trunk and use the emergency release.

EVDesigner
EVDesigner
1 month ago

The Acura ILX has a little button you press on the taillight

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago

The GR86 doesn’t have a handle at all. There’s a black button on the trunk under the spoiler that pops the trunk open, so you end using the bottom edge of the trunk as the handle or you could use the trim connecting the tail lights, but the position is more awkward and they don’t stick out quite far enough to be a practical handle.

CarlosMachina
CarlosMachina
1 month ago

Jason, when you wrote these words, “we’re always letting our fingers roam and explore under those little lips, fingering the license plate lights, as we feel for the little rubberized or plastic buttons that will get our hatches and trunks open,” I swooned.

Memphomike
Memphomike
1 month ago

I’m annoyed that you’re not actually operating a latch anymore, you’re just pushing a button that sends a signal to a lock controller of some kind that then sends a signal to the latch mechanism 3 inches below the button/switch.
I learned that when the hatch latch on my MINI failed. The switch was working, but the latch wasn’t.

Carl Archer
Carl Archer
1 month ago

Hot-take: This is a nothing burger. I am more irritated that my car doesn’t have a remote release from the interior or on my fob.

Isis
Isis
1 month ago

The F150 tailgate looks like it has a handle, but it’s a fake and simply hides the same button release found above license plates.

Greg
Greg
1 month ago

This is something that bothers me, but I’ve never said it outloud, thank you.

All my moms suv’s are in a different spot every model for no reason, I can never just open it for her. My wifes newer yukon has it under the freaking license plate. I get my hand a mess trying to find it all the time during our year round mud seasons.

This is the stuff auto execs need to be reading!

VanGuy
VanGuy
1 month ago

Among my biggest complaints with my Prius v (although, on the whole, not a huge deal, I suppose) is that its hatch’s “hidden handle” is a button that toggles some electronic actuator, which is unfortunate enough (purely mechanical would be best), but is really unfortunate since the 12v battery is also in the back.

When I replaced my 12v battery at an AutoZone, I had to open the hatch and leave it open while I went into the store, because if it latches (regardless of whether the car’s locked) while unpowered, the only way to open it is a flathead screwdriver. You have to crawl inside, pry off a plastic panel, and then use the screwdriver to actuate the release. And the same applies to most Priuses (or at least gen 3), so it’s even worse in the regular models where the hatch is L-shaped and you have less crawling space inside.

Could’ve been avoided. Unfortunate design. Having said that, for a 12-year-old vehicle, if this is the worst thing I can think of and I might only have to deal with this once every 5 years or so when the 12v battery starts to go bad…it’s certainly not a fatal design flaw. Its mitigation is just sub-optimal.

Limoncello
Limoncello
29 days ago
Reply to  VanGuy

i’ve done this soo many times in my gen 2 (before i finally replaced my 12V with a beafier one).

VanGuy
VanGuy
29 days ago
Reply to  Limoncello

Really? I’m the 4th owner of mine and I had to deal with it when the 12v was dying…but that was it. It was fine before and since then, albeit I’ve only had the car 5 years so far.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 month ago

While we’re at this topic, let’s talk about the wildly disparaging methods of selecting the gears in the current vehicles. No more “muscle memory” of shifting from P to whatever gear you need.

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