Indeed, the entire automotive marketplace these days is undergoing a renaissance in both exterior and interior design that is lending car makers a greater opportunity than at any time since the fifties to brand their vehicles by appearance. Whether it’s the radical curvature of the Nissan Murano “crossover” or the chiseled lines of the whole family of new Cadillacs, the exaggerated racing stance of the Ford GT sports car or the chock-a-block utilitarianism of the Honda Element sport-utility vehicle, today’s models present more visual distinctiveness than baby-boomer consumers have ever experienced.
The turnabout has even reached inside the vehicle, in elegant and detailed design statements such as the harmoniously sweeping instrument panel of the Chrysler Pacifica and the symphony of brushed-aluminum cylinders that dominate the cockpit of the new Audi TT Roadster.
And in harnessing that design excitement in the service of branding, automakers are finally taking full advantage of a weapon that they basically have left sheathed for way too long.
“It’s an exciting time for car design and for the industry in general, because both consumers and the car companies are ready to see more chances taken out there,” says Chris Chapman, director of automotive design for DesignWorks USA, a unit in Newbury Park, California, of the German automaker BMW. “People are kind of sick of the same old thing, and they’re looking for something new.”
Actually, there are more substantive underlying reasons for the arrival of a new golden era of automotive design and a re-establishment of the idea of design as brand. They begin with the reasons that the art and practice turned conservative and bland beginning in the US in the late sixties. Public fascination with tailfins and monster chrome bumpers gave way to overriding concerns about the structural integrity of automobiles once consumer-advocate Ralph Nader began crusading about dangerous vehicles in the sixties. Then the gasoline-supply crunch in the seventies created a preoccupation with fuel economy that further clipped the wings of designers and put a premium on clean, aerodynamic (read “boring”) sheet metal.
After the “jellybean” design of the Ford Taurus became popular in the late eighties, its extreme roundedness and lack of surface variegation became the industry-wide theme for the next decade or so. Finally, in the late nineties, most automakers began introducing ripples in the skin of new models, in a design departure known as “organic,” but blandness remained the essential look of the entire world of four-wheeled vehicles.
In the meantime, however, big changes were going on under the hoods of these vehicles that would help produce today’s renewed boldness in design: Caught in the throes of greater competition from Japan and Europe, American automakers vastly improved the manufactured quality of their products, from the durability of mechanical components to the “fit and finish” of the exteriors, eventually creating a vast competitive balance among most manufacturers in the US marketplace and across the globe.
“Compared with earlier eras—when choosing a car in some ways was making a judgment about how long you could afford to go before it ended up on the side of the road—quality and performance attributes now are all at or near the level of parity,” says Neil Moore, co-founder of Jump Associates, a San Mateo, California, consulting firm that specializes in helping its clients leverage product design. “Now consumers are asking, ‘What will really resonate with me and have personality and attributes that tell me this is a car that agrees with me?’ So design has become more of a differentiator for people.”
Other sea changes in the automotive business have intensified the re-ascendancy of design as well. One of them is the flood of foreign-based makers that are trying to attract attention and sales in the US market now, most of which were non-factors a generation ago. Another multiplier is the proliferation of new vehicle types that call for essentially different design templates; SUVs, hybrid-powertrain vehicles and even two-seat sportsters, for example, hardly existed a decade ago, but now their numbers are all growing faster than those of the traditional sedan.
“In the fifties and sixties, the consumer had maybe a hundred choices of vehicles,” says David Cole, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Today, you add them up and there are maybe 1,300 to 1,400 different models you could buy. So, the desire to separate themselves from the pack with unique design identities is really forcing companies to be somewhat bolder.”
Cole notes yet another reason that the auto market is seeing more daring designs: because car companies are technologically much more capable of producing them now. The digitization of automotive design has allowed stylists to test, on a virtual basis, dozens or even hundreds of potential themes, a process that previously relied on the painstakingly slow creation of clay models or other physical representations. Manufacturing lines, too, are more flexible nowadays, many of them capable of producing four or five models that are radically different on the outside even though they share the same basic, underlying mechanical platform.
Another contributor to today’s flourishing of new designs is that auto companies generally are getting more aggressive about turning popular “concept” cars into real production models. A generation ago, designers would put together fanciful, often futuristic-looking one-off models that drew oohs and aahs from the public at car shows and raves from the automotive press—but had virtually no chance of ever making it to dealer showrooms. But during the nineties, automakers decided that they had shortened their get-to-market cycle enough that they could begin flipping popular concept prototypes into actual production.
One other decisive factor came into play as well: desperation. Nissan Motor is perhaps the most aggressive about fielding new designs among major automakers worldwide today only because the company, Japan’s traditional No. 2 car manufacturer, was close to failure a few years ago. “We couldn’t just do ‘me-too’ products,” concedes Diane Allen, a design manager at Nissan Design America, the company’s in-house studio in San Diego. “A lot of consumers would compare us to Toyota and Honda with their incredible engineering history, and they didn’t know about our engineering, performance and manufacturing quality. So for us to gain attention—and to continue to survive—we had to go beyond the expected in design.”
As a result, over the last few years Nissan has scored hit after hit with the US public using design themes that would have been unthinkable before the new millennium. First came XTerra, which sought to embody the off-road spirit of SUVs with design cues, such as an oversized roof rack, that shouted utility; a brand new, sleek and sinewy version of Nissan’s Z sports car; and the pod-shaped Murano and its cousin, FX, which is sold under the company’s Infiniti luxury marque.
Most recently, Nissan launched Quest, a minivan that features skylights over the rear passenger compartments, a driver’s instrument panel that looks like something out of Lost in Space, and an industrial-looking, minimalist exterior design in a vehicle “that was meant to resemble an urban loft,” as Allen puts it. “It has an open, spacious quality that you interpret how you want.” And customers do want: The bold designs, along with new corporate leadership at the top, have helped turn around Nissan’s performance and prospects in the US market.
General Motors, still by far the US market-share leader, has deployed the chiseled-design theme throughout its new-vehicle lineup in the Cadillac division, which quickly revived the luxury brand over the last few years. Another keen new GM design is the Pontiac Vibe, a pert and versatile SUV-station wagon combination that appears to be what the company wished it had designed when Pontiac came out with the hulking, Rube Goldbergesque Aztek a few years ago—a confusing design that doomed the vehicle to initial failure in the marketplace, although the model still is sold.
Beyond the 300C, Chrysler has spawned a variety of risky designs that almost uniformly have paid off, ranging from the retro-looking PT Cruiser to its muscular Dodge Ram truck. Toyota Motor, not known for taking big chances on anything, has decided to spawn a new youth-oriented brand called Scion that is all about unsettling design; the Scion xB, which has been for sale in California for some time, resembles nothing else so much as a shoebox with a snout.
Perhaps no automotive brand has undergone a more radical design makeover than Volvo, the automaker of Swedish heritage that was purchased a few years ago by Ford Motor Co. The essence of the Volvo brand always has been its safety-consciousness. Design-wise, its identity was boxiness and utility, a paradigm that came straight out of the Swedish emphasis on functionality that also is plainly evident in their furniture designs. But Volvo’s new brand of design leaves behind the unremitting straight edges of the past and adds new ideas such as tightly curved ridges that stretch the entire length of fresh models such as the S80 luxury sedan.
“It was an opportunity to take a famous brand that had everything in place except perhaps one thing: the appeal of design,” says Peter Horbury, who spent a career doing designs for Rolls Royce, Isuzu and other automakers before joining Volvo as chief designer in 1991. “Today’s Volvos are based on simplicity and purity of form, not excel—a sculpted form onto which details are drawn, very much like Swedish furniture.”
Since its era-defining Taurus, Ford has been the most quiet of the traditional Big Three US automakers when it comes to design. The sprite-looking Focus, a small car that pioneered a generation of high-taillight copycat designs a few years ago, was an innovative exception. But Ford executives now believe that, for the company to execute a truly long-term turnaround, the brand owner must finally in all earnestness enter the design derby that now rages throughout the US auto industry.
“In the near future,” promises Horbury, whose success with Volvo’s redesign earned him a promotion to Ford’s executive director of design for the Americas, “you will see Ford cars coming through that make a stronger statement. There’s an awful lot we can do with American design to appeal to the American market.”