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Is Mazda the Design Leader?

Posted by: David Welch on January 17, 2006

Of America’s carmakers, there is no doubt that DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group is the healthiest and strongest. But as I have written before, their turnaround is on fragile footing. Witness their cars at the Detroit auto show, which is open to the public as we speak.

While Chrysler has been decorated as one of the industry’s styling kingpins—based mostly on the success of the 300 sedan—it looks to me like Chrysler fumbled on its way to paydirt in the gridiron game for design leadership. Business Week marketing editor David Kiley and I both panned the Chrysler Imperial concept as a garish stab at a Rolls Royce Phantom. Chief designer Trevor Creed told us that the Dodge Challenger concept—which is good looking—is very different from the 1970 Challenger which inspired the show car. Well, it’s a dead ringer for the old car to me. It even has similar door handles. Nice looking, indeed, but that’s not leadership. And the Jeep Compass production car is so far from the two-door concept car—which would have been great as a dirt racer for teh yally racing scene—that it now looks like a Pontiac Vibe.

So who is the industry’s design leader? General Motors, Ford and Toyota are all making strides after years of being a mix of boring and incompetent. BMW is always strong, but had little to show in Detroit this year.

My pick? Brace yourself. How about Mazda? I won’t crown Mazda as the industry’s design leader. The company is too small to really influence every segment of the market. And its niche is sporty. But there is a lot to like here. The CX-7 crossover suv is my pick for the best-looking production car in Detroit this week. The Kabura concept, also unveiled at the auto show, is as sexy as they come. Add that to the fact that the Mazda 3 compact is a head turner among its competitors, and it looks like Mazda’s “Zoom Zoom” tagline is more than just cheap ad copy.

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Want the straight scoop on the auto industry? Our man in Detroit David Welch, brings keen observations and provocative perspective on the auto business.

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