The fate of most car companies has been shifting from sober executives and calculating engineers to rest more on the quirky, creative types who head up design departments. As a result, automobile design is changing dramatically.
Automakers are striving for sexier-looking cars as a way to draw buyers who once may have been sold on power, performance, warranties or amenities. “This is the absolute best time ever to be a car designer,” says Patrick Schiavone, who leads Ford’s North American design effort. “As a business, we’ve come to the conclusion that sex sells and understand that this is a fashion industry.”
Many designers see the car as a form of clothing. "We like to say, ‘A car is the largest object you are ever going to wear,’" says Chris Chapman of BMW. And to their benefit, design is fast becoming the main way automakers differentiate their products and brands. The reason is that the content, quality and performance of vehicles has reached a plateau where most, if not all, are on equal footing within their specific categories.
“With cars built the same, lasting the same, with equal drive trains, design is the difference,” Chapman says. “Every company wants to be noticed.”
General Motors designer Tom Peters, who headed up the teams behind the current Chevrolet Corvette and the Camaro concept, says design “gives you a way to make a bold down-the-road graphic and an unmistakable personality. What you want is a car so clear you can recognize what kind it is from a football field away.”
Dramatic designs on headlights and taillights lend more personality to the “faces” designers give cars. These faces are growing more aggressive. “For me, a vehicle is like a person I want to get to know,” Peters says. “When you look into someone's eyes, you know who they are. The same thing with a car: The lights are the windows to the technological soul of the vehicle. It may be subliminal but it sends a strong message.”
Another unfolding influence is the look of rally cars from the World Touring Car Championship race series, known to young drivers from video games and television. “Some drivers are looking for an aggressive nature for their cars," says Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis at J.D. Power and Associates. "There is a strong influence from such cars with the rally look as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution or Subaru Impreza WRX STI.”
Ed Welburn, GM's senior VP of global design, says that such looks might be coming to small cars sold in the U.S. “It can be another kind of muscle car,” he says. The three small concept cars Chevrolet unveiled at the 2007 New York Auto Show — the Beat, Trax and Groove, designed by GM’s studio in Inchon, Korea — sampled elements of this look.
Tying in to the movement toward more-aggressive looks, front grilles on vehicles are also getting larger and bolder. One reason is to help a brand or vehicle stand out more, auto designers say. But there are also practical considerations. As engines become more powerful, they require more cooling and larger grilles enable this.
At least one designer sees the industry headed toward the Jetsons-like bubble glass canopy. The spark for this trend lies in huge, elaborate sunroofs increasingly seen on new vehicles. They add a sense of space to vehicle interiors, which often can seem claustrophobic. “This is not a short-term trend. In the near future we may see the return of the glass bubble,” says Ford's Shiavone.
Advances in technology, highly-focused marketing of new types of vehicles and an increasing visual sophistication among consumers make this a fertile era for new design trends, according to top designers and analysts.