Automakers have to sell enough vehicles to offset the costs of developing and producing them. After a string of tough years – from General Motors’ and Chrysler’s government bailouts during the recession to Toyota’s and Honda’s troubles after last year’s earthquake in Japan – car companies don’t want to invest in something that might be a flop.
Still, distinctive design – even if it’s polarizing – can pay dividends. Ed Welburn, vice president for global design at GM, says the angular styling of Cadillac’s new sedans got a sharply divided reaction in consumer focus groups a decade ago. But GM embraced it anyway, knowing it would stand out. Sales took off.
Risky design also put Hyundai on the map with the 2011 Sonata, a four-door sedan that looks more like a twodoor coupe and has an instantly recognizable crease swooping along its side. Phillip Zak, Hyundai’s chief U.S. designer at the time, who has since gone to GM, says unique designs benefit car companies since customers are more emotionally attached to distinctive cars and will spend more on options like leather seats.
But risky designs can backfire, too. GM killed the Chevrolet SSR, a retro-styled convertible pickup, after only three years because of poor sales. Sales of the Nissan Juke, an odd little two-door crossover with a bulbous nose, have been anemic so far this year.
So are we condemned to a future of cookie-cutter cars?
Probably not. There are changes afoot that point to more differentiated design in the future.
Design studio advances, such as computerized modeling, have cut the cost and time it takes to develop new cars. At the same time, the market is fragmenting into more categories – small, midsize and large SUVs, for example – which gives automakers room to experiment because they’re not depending on one model for blockbuster sales.
New technology under the hood, such as electrification, could radically change designs, since designers won’t have to make room for cumbersome gas engines.
But the biggest change, experts say, is that the quality of cars has gotten so good that design is one of the only ways a car company can distinguish itself.<< previous 1 2 3