Consider two new car models in North
America. One is the Pontiac GTO from General Motors (GM), with a powerful
engine and terrific acceleration. It’s not selling well. The other is the
Chrysler 300, a luxury saloon, which is shaping up to be the biggest success
in the manufacturer’s history. Why is one flagging and the other booming? The
Pontiac GTO has a dull jelly-bean design, whereas the Chrysler 300 has an
aggressive front end and a hunkered-down shape that gives it great presence.
After a couple of decades when cars all looked increasingly similar, design is
once more becoming a key differentiator in a crowded market.
Bold is back. This will be the year of
the designer as more and more manufacturers seek to stand out from the crowd.
No longer are there car-designer company hacks who stick with one firm for
years. Today the stars move around from brand to brand and strut the stage at
car launches and auto shows, like fashion designers. The Armanis and
Lagerfelds of the auto world include Chris Bangle of BMW, Peter Horbury of
Ford (the man who turned Volvos from fridges on wheels to sculpted
cool-mobiles) and Ralph Gilles, the 34-year-old behind the Chrysler 300.
With around 25% over-capacity worldwide,
price cutting by giving cash-back deals has become as commonplace in Europe
as it has been for some years in America. America has twice the number of car
brands on the market that it had 30 years ago, as import brands have
multiplied. In a market like this, companies are desperate for an edge that
allows them to command a premium price.
Two more cars that are being talked
about in design circles are the big BMW 7-series models and the Rolls-Royce.
Both are striking and bold. After years of classical, straight-lined
refinement, BMW has gone all curvy, with its latest 7-series and the new
6-series coupe. Bold designs walk a tightrope. The German motoring press
lambasted BMW for the 7 when it first came out a couple of years ago, although
it has warmed to the 6-series.
Another extremely bold design is the
first new Rolls-Royce to be brought out since the company passed into the
ownership of BMW in 1998. It looks like a real, proud Rolls-Royce rather than
the staid, stale versions of the past 20 years. It is a huge car, yet the
clever way the various proportions have been managed makes it look like a big
The use of design is even more difficult
in the volume market. Renault stands out in Europe as the manufacturer that
has played the design card most vigorously. Occasionally it does not work. Its
Avantime upmarket coupe never even made it into five figures before its
production was stopped. In the mid-1990s Ford, in the big saloon class, came
out with a Scorpio model, which looked as though the front and back had been
designed by different people on each side of the Atlantic. It bombed and Ford
dropped out of that segment.
But Renault is not at all deterred by
failures such as the Avantime. Its mid-1990s' little Twingo, with its
cross-eyed headlamps, was a runaway success. So was its bold and innovative
Scenic version of its Magana saloon: the Scenic was not just good-looking, it
was a whole new functional design, bringing the height and space of
people-carriers down to the mid-range. Renault’s boss, Louis Schweitzer, and
its chief designer, Patrick Le Quement, continue to emphasize design more than
any other volume manufacturer. Renault’s sister company Nissan is also using
the bold design of its 350z sports car as a way to boost the image of the
whole Nissan brand, by associating it with something stylish.
Other manufacturers will be bringing out
2005 models designed to give a family look to their whole range. Ford will
take this further with the new version of its bestselling Focus. The first
version of that model defined a whole new sort of “edge” styling that can now
be seen across Ford’s entire range. Another example is Fiat, which ran into
trouble with its new mid-sized Stilo model in 2003, because it looked like an
imitation of a German car. Now the aim is to have every model with a “Made in
Italy” look, trying to grab some of the glitz of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and
The prize for investing boldly in design
is that customers are prepared to pay premium prices for cars that stand out
from the crowd. It is already working for Cadillac in America, where GM’s
vice-chairman and product-development boss, Bob Lutz, proudly points to
waiting lists and above-list-price bids for a couple of the latest Cadillacs,
such as the striking XLR. Attractive new designs have even enabled GM to
relaunch sales of models in Europe, as design brings Cadillac in from the
The pitfall is that dramatic looks can
put off loyal customers and deter many potential converts who just do not like
radical design. And complacency or false moves can hurt. VW’s new Golf is
technically very advanced, but got off to a slow start partly because it was
rather dull to look at and because the company had skimped on the design of
the interior. This is odd, since markedly smarter interior design is one
reason VW models have been able to command premium prices compared with Fords
or Opels in Europe.
All this shows how the car industry is
changing. Computerized design and engineering allow companies to try out new
looks and designs very quickly. The intensity of competition also means that
new models have to appear more frequently and be refreshed more rapidly,
without consuming vast amounts of investment. Design is a way to satisfy those
needs. It does not always make a car company a winner, but you need top-class
design now just to stay in the game.