Never before has design been so vital to an auto maker's success -- maybe even to its survival. Sure, there have always been great-looking cars -- cars that juiced sales and set trends, from the 1950s Cadillacs with their rakish tail fins to Nissan's racy 240Z and the ultra-aerodynamic, arrow-shaped Audi 100. But reliability, horsepower, and handling loomed large then, too, separating brands distinctly in consumers' minds.
Now, a decade-long drive to close the quality and engineering gap among car manufacturers around the world has left the companies competing increasingly on, well, looks. "Design is the No. 1 selling point these days," asserts James Kelly, professor of transportation design at the Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
Take a look at the numbers: The universe is teeming with good quality, me-too autos. Average initial quality for U.S. autos, as measured by J.D. Power & Associates, has improved 24% in the past five years. The gap between the best and worst U.S. performers, which was 212 defects per 100 vehicles in 1998, has narrowed to 53 defects. Sell on reliability alone? Fewer and fewer models can do that -- the dealer across the street can trot out impressive quality reviews too.
Next, take the sheer number of models vying for car buyers' eyeballs. The rush to share platforms and components since the mid-1990s has spurred an unprecedented proliferation of models. In 1995, there were only 910 different cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. By 2002, that number rose 44%, to 1,314, according to Automotive News. We sure don't need them all -- but Detroit, Germany, and Japan just keep cranking them out. Minivans. SUVs. Roadsters. Sedans. Every carmaker, it seems, is racing into every niche.
How to stand out in the crowd? Create a car with a strong personality. Get the proportions and styling right -- an elegantly curved shoulder line or an innovative grille -- and you can probably charge a little extra and still outsell rivals. "All of a sudden you are not underwater by a couple hundred million dollars, but over by that same amount," says Christoph St?rmer, senior auto analyst at Global Insight in Frankfurt.OPEN SEASON ON TALENT. To catch that right look, auto industry giants are enlarging staffs, investing millions in high-tech art studios, and spending more to hire star designers, often luring celebrated talent from rival shops. Volkswagen plucked Murat Guenak from Mercedes-Benz and Walter de'Silva from Alfa Romeo, while General Motors snapped up Anne Asensio from Renault.
Top design requires big bucks. While their budgets are top secret, designers say companies like GM and Ford have boosted spending on design by at least 50% since the early 1990s. Top car designers such as BMW's Bangle and VW's Guenak can earn close to $1 million in salary and bonuses, according to Booz Allen Hamilton estimates. Peugeot is pouring $165 million on a new design center outside Paris. You know the industry is getting serious about design when Toyota Motor Corp. -- big, boring Toyota -- decides to shell out millions for a lavish design center in Japan, in addition to far-flung facilities from California to France.
Leading designers, hungry for the killer look, are foraging for ideas in the universe of art, architecture, and fashion. "I get most of my inspiration from architecture and furniture design," says Ken Okuyama, a former automobile designer for Porsche, Italy's Pininfarina, and General Motors, and now chairman of the transportation design department at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
The efforts are paying off, as a fresh wave of 21st century designs already tools down the highway. Cruise down the Champs Elys?es and you'll see the scooting siblings that make up the Renault M?gane family -- especially the M?gane II Hatch, with an audacious, chopped-off back that says something very French and very provocative. Or go to the corporate canyons of New York to see the powerful BMW 7 purring in traffic -- a real hunk of imposing Teutonic metal, a power statement that has scandalized traditionalists but thrilled designers with its overwhelming presence and in-your-face design. And the Japa-nese? They're getting a makeover, too. The Nissan Murano has a grille based on a medieval knight's helmet and a body inspired by handblown Venetian glass. "Our goal was to create a car that stood out enough to turn heads and have people asking, 'What was that car?"' says Taiji Toyota, Nissan's chief project designer for the Murano.
Three different designs with three things in common -- they all renounce the bland, windblown look of the 1990s, the Everyman car profile. The three bear the stamp of powerful designers, not committees. And they all are spurring sales and profits for their makers.SEXY BEASTS. That has riveted attention in the boardroom. Seeing that innovative design allows auto makers to grab customers from rivals, top management is becoming artistically emboldened. Chief execs are concluding that in the decade to come, at least, it will be riskier to be boring. "Mainstream design is migrating to the more edgy," says J Mays, Ford's chief designer and the man who, while at Volkswagen, conceived the New Beetle. His point: Stick with the tried and true, and die a slow death. Even the Germans, who have relied for years on the timeless appeal of minimalist, form-follows-function design, are taking heed. The much-heralded launch of VW's fifth-generation Golf in September stalled. Despite rave reviews of its handling, auto reviewers and consumers dinged the car for its dull shape. In 2003, VW sold only 110,000 new Golfs, 25,000 short of its original target.
Now VW's new head designer, Murat Guenak, has a massive rescue job on his hands. "I want more sensuality, more passion, and more emotion to Volkswagen's cars. A car can't exist in the future if it does not show passion."
Passion -- and attitude -- are what consumers will see more of in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., as the focus on design bears ever more fruit. From the U.S. expect a flotilla of aggressively styled new-generation cars with big muscle -- under the hood and on the car's silhouette. From Europe, look for some Audi models with a touch of the bestial about them -- powerful, sculpted hoods, gaping-mouth grilles, and mean-looking headlights. If you have $540,000 to spare, you can try the Mercedes McLaren, a sports car whose profile evokes a great white shark with dinner on his mind. From Japan, expect to see a Lexus that actually has personality, and that has dieted hard to shed its affluent, chubby look and acquire a sleeker silhouette.
Everyone agrees that designers with European experience are setting the pace, thanks to a 100-year heritage of cars as art form, and craftsmen's attention to interiors. That's why European staffs are the ones to poach from. Ford recruited former Audi designer J Mays in 1997. Mays, an Oklahoman who had spent most of his career in Germany working for Audi, BMW, and Volkswagen, in turn rounded up a team of European engineers. Asensio, now director of Advanced Vehicles design at GM, helped author the smash hit M?gane Scenic, which sold 2.3 million units and pioneered the minivan sector in Europe.
But even though European-trained designers get top grades, no one thinks we're in for a permanent reign of Continental design. Everyone is groping to express their national je ne sais quoi. "The worst thing we could do is look like a European car," says Trevor Creed, the British-born senior vice-president of design at Chrysler Corp. describing the five- meter-long 300C sedan. "We need an architecture that says, 'I am different. I am a different proportion.' We need imposing proportions."
The Japanese are also plumbing the national soul for inspiration. To carve out a more distinct identity, Toyota's designers are trying to take advantage of something they call the "J-Factor," which captures positive feelings among global consumers toward Japanese design and culture. It seeks to leverage Japan's reputation for creating colorful, compact and high-tech products. "By acknowledging our design DNA, we hope to harness it and use it to our advantage," says Hideichi Misono, senior general manager of Toyota Motor's new Global Design Center in Toyota City. The design world is watching Japan with some trepidation. "It's scary. They are building good staff and will produce some excellent design," says Dale Harrow, chairman of the department of vehicle design at the Royal College of Art in London. Toyota aims to win 15% of the global market by 2010, "and they will do it through design," he adds.
Nissan, a lap ahead of Toyota, has already gone through a dramatic design metamorphosis. Shiro Nakamura sketched a compelling, fresh Japanese look for a new generation of Nissans, from the huggable Micra mini to the Infinity luxury crossover FX-45, designed to resemble a cheetah.
As the designers compete to claim the title of most-coveted look, technology is helping fuel the revolution. Three-dimensional modeling software allows designers to produce riskier, innovative concepts with fewer rejects along the way. That's because the digital designs can weed out shapes with inherent engineering or safety flaws before they are even test-built in clay models. As recently as the early 1990s, clay or fiberglass renditions were carmakers' only way to test the visual appeal of a model.VIRTUAL MOBILITY. Most studios now are fitted with amphitheaters where executives and designers don virtual-reality goggles to test the digital mockup on a highway -- viewing the car in motion before it's built. "It's easier to sell ideas [to management] by using the latest technology," says Moray Callum, general manager in charge of Mazda Motor Corp.'s design division.
The ease of digital auto design has boosted the number of concept cars at auto shows, allowing companies to test the public reaction to designs. Instead of two or three concept cars per year, auto makers may produce as many as five or six. Now they are increasingly a trial balloon for cars likely to be built and a major signal of a shift in design language. "Concept cars have become very serious, like preproduction cars," says Volkswagen's Guenak, who hopes the hot-looking roadster he unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show in September will set the tone for a new-looking generation of Volkswagens.
As the star designers wield the power of bigger budgets, whizzier tech, and larger staffs, their power in the boardroom is growing, too. Renault's Le Quement sits on the board and answers only to Chairman Louis Schweitzer. VW's Guenak also has the ear of VW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder, who sits down for a one-to-one intensive exchange of ideas on design at Guenak's bidding -- about once every two weeks. Robert Peugeot, director of innovation and quality at PSA Peugeot Citro?n, says he tells designers to call him day or night. "The executive committee spends a lot of time on design: It's absolutely strategic," he says. Looks have never counted more. By Gail Edmondson
With Chester Dawson in Tokyo and Kathleen Kerwin in Detroit