Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mobile Beauty Contest

Forbes Write:

As the story goes, the designers went to work with a new enthusiasm and freedom, which led to the future Taurus, America's bestselling car from 1992 through 1996.
Maybe auto presidents are visiting designers again, because we are beginning to see some good-looking cars. Couldn't come soon enough. I remember the great days of design, the 1950s and 1960s, when we threw away the square corners and made cars longer, lower and wider, added fins, took out the center pillar between the front and rear doors and came up with the "hardtop convertible," chromed everything in sight, opened up the wheel wells and made them look fast.

I wouldn't blame today's boring vehicles on the designers alone. As buyers we've turned terribly practical. We like to buy sport utility vehicles and especially the "crossover" types that are built on car rather than truck chassis. They're all basically "two box" designs, meaning one box is the engine compartment and the other box is the rest of the vehicle. They allow us to sit high so we can see the road and some give us three rows of seats and plenty of room for cargo. Practical, yes, but the boxes are hard on design. Styling masters haven't been able to do much with minivans and pickup trucks, either, although in 1994 Dodge put a Mack-truck-like front end on its Ram pickup, and it's been a hit since.

But good looks are coming back, as evidenced at the recent Detroit auto show. The most beautiful car was the Volkswagen Passat CC, a sloping four-door sedan. They think of it as a "coupe" because it looks so much like a two-door. GM showed an off-roader concept, a challenger to the old Jeep Wrangler, called the Hummer HX Concept, that was sooo hot. The Cadillac CTS coupe, which will be in production in a couple of years, is another beauty. We all know about the crisp good looks of the new Chevrolet Malibu.

Toyota has a new, fine-looking crossover, or station wagon, whatever you call it, named the Venza, to go into production this fall. It will sell. Ask yourself if the Toyota Prius hybrid would be such a hot seller if it looked like a traditional boring small car.
Even the pickup is getting some fresh thinking. Toyota showed a concept pickup (called A-BAT for Advanced Breakthrough Aero Truck) that was supersleek and small. I'm not sure there's a market for a stylish pickup, but if there is, Toyota will get a nice piece of it. Until recently we thought Japanese design was boring. We called Japanese cars appliances. Not anymore. Nissan 's lovely Altima sedan (since 2007) and Murano SUV (2004) were leaders in the company's recovery.

Is there proof that design makes such a difference? The Ford Escape and Honda CR-V are small SUVs. The Escape has inched up in annual sales over the past six years from 164,000 to 166,000. The Escape today looks like, well, an Escape, not much different from the old model. The CR-V became sleek. It went from 118,000 to 219,000. Design is not the only reason for its gains. But I'm sure it plays a good part in the Honda's sales lead.

Even a very good design needs tweaking from time to time or people get bored. Remember how great looks from Chrysler--the sleek cab-forward sedans (meaning the passenger compartment was moved forward), then the pt Cruiser, then the Chrysler 300--excited buyers? Sales began falling as the excitement faded away. We never know for sure which flashy design is really good and which is just flash. Take the new BME X6, which seems to be a sport utility all-wheel-drive car in a fairly sleek fastback body. Do people want an SUV that looks so much like a car? We'll find out. Ford has a new vehicle due in a few months called the Flex. It's for folks who want them big and roomy but don't want minivans. It's a new look, squarish but different. Do people want something like this? We'll find out.

Still, carmakers are churning out many vehicles without much style. Coming this year there's a new Pontiac G8, which, to me, looks decades old. The new Honda Pilot is another square crossover.If the American industry is to survive, it will have to rely on design as never before. There are signs of change, especially at General Motors It's time for the president of each company to go down to the design studios and ask the people there if they would want those vehicles in their own driveways.

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