Regulations, Cost Keep Cars Looking The Same


Having trouble distinguishing a Civic from a Sentra, or even a Kia from a Mercedes? Here are some of the reasons why:

Government regulations.
Seat belts, air bags and crash-test standards have all left their mark on vehicle design. And as automakers sell more cars globally, they also have to consider European and Asian regulations.

Pedestrian protection standards in Europe, for example, require that cars be made to hit the upper and lower body at the same time, so a victim is more likely to bounce onto the hood. That forces designers to include tall, chunky bumpers, like those on the new Volkswagen Jetta and Ford Focus.

“You can have different tail lights and head lights, but you don’t have the level of flexibility that somebody might really like to have on a pure design standpoint, and you certainly have less of it than you had in the past,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Fuel economy.
Government fuel economy standards are rising, and so are consumers’ expectations for fuel efficiency. Thirty miles per gallon was impressive a decade ago; now automakers are routinely making small cars that get 40 mpg or higher.

As the emphasis on fuel economy grows, so does the focus on aerodynamics. The 2013 versions of the Ford Escape and Nissan Pathfinder both ditched their boxy, wind-resistant rooflines for ones that sweep back and flow with the air. Car companies are also building vehicles closer to the ground, changing grilles and tweaking side mirrors to save a few tenths of a gallon.

“There’s only one good way through the wind. You can’t have a wide variety of shapes and have them be aerodynamically correct,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book.

Insular design world.
Designers go to the same auto shows, read the same design magazines and, for the most part, attend a handful of schools. Popular designs are quickly copied. Chrysler’s retro PT Cruiser was followed a few years later by the Chevrolet HHR. The boxy Nissan Cube and Kia Soul channel the Scion xB.

“It’s really a very conservative profession,” said Imre Molnar, dean of Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies, a design school.

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Posted by on Oct 1st, 2012 and filed under Techline. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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