Car Design for the 21st Century: Art in Modern Automotive Styling

Manufacturer caution has lead to a series of new cars coming out this year that has done little to inspire buyers. It seems that the big players do not want to push the boundaries of acceptance too far, and instead they choose to focus only on established markets where they are confident of modest, guaranteed sales (Source: Frankfurt IAA 2009)

Yet it is possible to argue that to inject new life into car sales, car companies need to explore new horizons and push the envelope now more than ever before. Buyers will only be attracted back into the market if it is fresh and exciting (2 Magazine, Jul 09)

American Car Design

Take Chevrolet. For years, they have tried to deliver profit by making “me-too” clones of established sellers, which trade on low-cost engineering and value. Except the offering has been quite poor. Then along came Transformers, and everyone wanted a new Camaro. This outlandish muscle car was shown in 2006 as an unlikely concept, but such was the positive response that the car has now just gone on sale. And it’s brilliant.

General Motors boss Rick Wagoner says the coupé, ” symbolizes America’s love affair with the automobile”. The gaping mouth, rakish roof-line, and huge exhausts make it look like a child’s toy, but the effect is so complete that it triggers something in us, the small boy who stamps his feet and demands he has one.

Japanese Car Design

The negative outlook has turned the establishment on its head. The world once looked to Europe for impeccable design and style, and the Japanese makers were accepted to just produce clinical, straightforward designs with little imagination. Who honestly could become excited by a Honda Accord or Toyota Corolla? Things, however, are set to change.

Nissan has just launched its world-beating car. The GT-R is everything a “now” car should be. It looks hard, slippery and alien. The GT-R’s greatest trick is perhaps its ability to appear smooth and spiky at the same time. The world is left in no doubt as to its performance, yet the rear haunches are soft and the nose is low and almost friendly. It is both accommodating and very aggressive, and this sums up the drive beautifully.

Toyota too is feeling for the limits of what is imaginable. Their incredible FT-HS concept is set for release in eighteen months, and what a relief it is. Swooping curves are slashed diagonally by straight-cut lines, and it seems the longer the viewer looks upon it, the more detail they notice. BMW tried a similar trick across its entire range earlier this decade, but it came up against huge critical controversy.

Perhaps buyers are more accustomed to subtle understatement from Europe’s luxury makers (2 Magazine, Jul 09). Yet the gamble paid off, and BMW sold nearly 1.5 million cars last year (source: DW Newswire). Continual familiarity diffuses initial impact, and prolonged exposure leads to indifferent contempt. This is perhaps why there are so many 4×4-estate-lifestyle muddles being launched.

European Car Design

Even Mercedes has abandoned sensational style for this new culture of niche-bending. Looking through the Mercedes range is like reading an A-Z; there is a model number for almost every letter of the alphabet, and most are dubious crossover vehicles. It seems so long ago when the public lusted after the achingly beautiful lines of 2006’s CLS. New Mercedes are contemporary, but do they push emotional buttons?

It is easy to become cynical about art in automotive design right now. Concept cars still look fresh and interesting, but models launched off the back of them never look anything like those early, artisan designs. Car stylists now must operate within the confines of crash protection, pedestrian safety, and worldwide legal requirements. Bumpers must be a certain depth to pass crash tests and brake lights must be a certain height from the floor. It must be like trying to paint an inspired masterpiece upon a Post-it note.

Successful Car Design

If there is one maker who has truly nailed mainstream avante-garde, it is Ford (CAR Magazine). Company design director, Martin Smith said he wanted to create a car that, “looks like it is moving whilst it is stationary”. This is the essence of Kinetic Design. When the Focus was launched in the nineties, everyone labeled it as radical and almost too innovative for mass acceptance, yet it went on to become a worldwide best-seller.

It is very easy to dilute the design process as it matures into production reality, but buyers need to be continually stimulated to trigger interest and get them buying cars again. It seems that art is being restrained in an attempt to deliver something that is going to be universally accepted, but this can only lead long-term to a stagnant market. Leave the inhibitions behind, and let car buyers choose what they like.

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