||Personality Makes a Comeback
Yes, fuel economy is king, but designers are looking beyond pure aerodynamics. In fact, signs of sporty exuberance are everywhere.
Vehicle design changed direction in 2010, with a distinct movement toward aggressive forms, crisper surfaces and more angular shapes.
At least that's what turned up on concept and production vehicles at this year's auto shows.
The lozenge is dead, except for a few green cars. Apparently, grabbing that extra 0.001 of fuel-saving drag coefficient no longer takes priority over a beautiful design.
Instead, automakers are making design a key component of their brand message, said Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group's lead designer.
"We are starting to see cars that have an outsized personality; a recognizable, signature look that you can see from 100 feet away," Gilles said.
"When a 7-year-old sees the new Dodge Charger across the parking lot and calls it 'sinister,' then we're doing our job."
Audi has led the way in this bolder direction with its geomechanical styling, which other European brands have started to imitate in gentler fashion. A look at the Audi e-tron and Quattro concept cars reveals a car-as-machine ethos.
"We're seeing a lot of European brands moving toward a more industrial feel," said Mike O'Brien, vice president of corporate and product planning for Hyundai Motor America. "It has a more functional basis, with more geometry and a less muscular look."
Many automakers also are trying to achieve a more premium aesthetic effect through design, even if the brand is not really premium, said Derek Jenkins, Mazda's North American design boss.
"You see that in a lot of competitive brands, especially coming out of Korea," Jenkins said.
Hyundai's latest Sonata and its Genesis and Equus suggest a brand exuding confidence in its quality and demographic growth. Back in the day, the styling of Hyundai's mass-volume cars was staid -- and downright uninspiring on its niche vehicles. Not anymore.
Part of that has to do with a "cleaning up of design," said Tom Matano, former Mazda design boss and now head of industrial design at the Academy of Art in San Francisco and design chief for Next Autoworks.
That cleanup means those tacky little jewel-box detail pieces -- the faux bling of nonfunctional hood scoops, brake vents and portholes -- are on the way out. Even the performance-minded BMW M3's perforated gills are nonfunctional, while, ironically, the side vent on the M3 wannabe Cadillac CTS has an actual mechanical purpose. Either way, it's a passing fad.
"After all those flame designs and other detail or graphic-oriented designs, we are moving to being more about volume, proportion and surface-oriented design," Matano said.
For instance, Mazda has teased the media for three years with its "Nagare" concept design language, which used wavy character lines to give more substance to body panels. But it looks as if only the Mazda5 minivan will carry the Nagare look as a production vehicle because the automaker has changed direction toward what it calls "Shinari," featuring bolder creases as opposed to the more subtle scalloping of Nagare.
The green scene
Carmakers also are grappling with how to reconcile eco-minded messaging for green cars while maintaining a sense of enthusiasm and sporty exuberance in design, Jenkins said.
"Oftentimes when you talk green, somehow the car gets toned down," he said. "You get so hyper-concentrated on aerodynamics, and it affects the way things look."
The industry has yet to come up with a good example of a car that conveys both environmental sensitivity or efficiency and sports-carlike lust for driving, Jenkins said.
In the meantime, green cars are stuck with aero shapes that imitate the Toyota Prius, such as the Honda Insight and Nissan Leaf. Even the Chevrolet Volt, though having slightly more crisp surfaces, still is a slippery lozenge.
"My feeling is we're just scratching the surface, and we haven't seen real visual examples of it," Jenkins said.
Conversely, the macho, earth-stomping SUV, known for its aggressive design, is now being gentrified, though not without losing its sense of style. The Land Rover Evoque, BMW X1 and Audi Q5 may be better defined as tall people-haulers instead of SUVs.
Said Hyundai's O'Brien: "We're seeing more debate over whether crossovers need to be rugged or if they can look more 'city.' The Honda CR-V walked away from typical SUV surfacing, and it's selling better than ever. Not just Toyota with the next RAV4 but all of us need to consider whether to follow Honda down that path."
Devil in the details
As far as details, automakers are seeing the influence of the Specialty Equipment Market Association show extending into the mainstream.
Once-obscure items such as "wraps" and "foils" -- fancy appliques to enhance paint jobs -- are becoming common as those paint jobs become more customized.
"Wrap is it this year, especially carbon-fiber wraps," said Melvin Betancourt, lead designer of the 2011 Ford Explorer crossover.
"People are painting metallic with more robustness and then foiling it," he said. "We're also seeing the contrast of matte paint with glossy black details, especially with the wheels. Glossy black is the new chrome. I'm not sure how much I like it, but it's out there."
At the Hyundai booth at the SEMA show, dueling Equus sedans showed both ideas. One was completely covered in faux carbon-fiber wrap; the other split its exterior surfaces with matte and gloss sections, with gloss-black wheels.
Lighting technologies also continue to be a major emphasis for differentiation. The trend now is being picked up by higher-volume brands, not just luxury makes, said Mazda's Jenkins.
Again, Audi has led the way with LED lighting that gives more expressiveness to the front fascia and more definition to the rear. Once just reserved for top-end cars such as the R8 and A8, the Audi LED trend has made it all the way to its entry-luxury A3.
But for all these changes, Peter Schreyer, Kia's chief design officer, worries that the global nature of the industry is causing styling to converge. Design cues that in the past would have been a hallmark of one automaker in a particular region are beginning to appear across the industry.
"There is a lot of fashion in automotive design, and you can see elements showing up across all car companies," Schreyer said.
One reason for this is the varying global safety standards to which all automakers must conform. American side-impact standards combined with European offset crash standards and varying pedestrian protection standards can restrict a designer's efforts to create something distinct.
Jaguar chief designer Ian Callum said the Jaguar XF's hoodline would have been much sleeker if the designers had not needed to add crumple space above the engine in case of pedestrian impact. In the XF's case, a centimeter or two of added radius to the hood's curve changed the look of the entire car, making it look more, ahem, pedestrian.
If there is one carmaker that is defying this trend of sameness -- although not necessarily for the better -- it is Honda.
Its string of recent designs -- notably the Honda Crosstour and Acura ZDX crossovers as well as the Acura "beak" grille -- have some in the design community scratching their heads. Then again, maybe Honda and Acura were what French graphic designer Fabien Barral had in mind when he said, "Designers are meant to be loved, not to be understood."
(Source: Automotive News, 11/22/10)
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