Global Economics

Mr. Opel, Meet Mr. Saturn


General Motors' (GM) European unit, Adam Opel, unveiled its muscular new roadster, the Opel GT, at the Geneva Auto show this month, hoping the $35,000 two-seater would inject Opel with upmarket panache. The GT is the latest in a lineup of head-turners by a company whose cars were long considered dull by Europeans.

Its inspiration comes from a popular Opel GT model of the 1960s, but the new Opel is very much a part of GM's recent push toward edgy looks to win back market share. Top management is betting Opel's dynamic design will help power GM Europe back to profitability in 2006 after five years of steady losses.

GM is also twinning its Opel and U.S.-based Saturn brands in a bid to expand Saturn's lineup with models that sport "European appeal" to compete with Volkswagen and Audi in the U.S. Going forward, Saturn's cars will share common modules, components, and design language with Opel.

The Opel GT and the Saturn Sky are the first true sister models. "This car is about joining Opel and Saturn at the hip. Saturn deliberately wants to have more European styling," says Carl Peter Forster, president of GM Europe.

GM is hoping Saturn's new models will have the same appeal in the U.S. as its hot-selling Pontiac Solstice. Bryan Nesbitt, executive director of design for GM Europe, led the design of all three cars. And like many top auto designers, his credentials span the Atlantic. Nesbitt, 36, was born in Phoenix and studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

Before joining General Motors, he worked as design manager at DaimlerChrysler (DCX) and was principle designer of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which was unveiled in 1999. He discussed the Opel GT, the Saturn twinning strategy, and GM's new design direction with Senior European correspondent Gail Edmondson.

The new Opel GT doesn't seem to have a lot in common with the design of the original Opel GT of the 1960s. Could you explain what links the two cars?

The Opel GT is actually derived from the Vauxhall Lightning, a commemorative show car developed by Simon Cox in our Birmingham studio. That car was not related to the original Opel GT of the 1960s.

But it was so successful, we wanted to leverage the design for Europe and the U.S. And the Opel brand was looking for a niche vehicle that would help move Opel's image a bit upmarket as Chevrolet moved into the European market with its entry-level cars.

But there are some styling similarities with the original Opel GT, too. The Opel GT always had a kind of coke-bottle look, leaping front fenders and a long hood. The two cars share those styling elements.

The new Opel GT has a characteristic racecar windshield, painted silver to highlight the structure. There are a couple of elements from the last generation Opel GT in the new car.

And there are a couple of big themes that link the Opel GT past and present: The dashboard-to-front axle distance and the stretched appearance of a roadster. The space from the windshield to the front wheel is exaggerated to give the car dynamic proportions and appearance. There's a lot of hood.

That instantly communicates this is a vehicle made for driving. You also see with the original Opel GT the long hood and the lines of the dashboard to front axle. It was a great design that has evolved.

How would you compare and contrast the three new GM roadsters based on the Vauxhall Lightning show car -- the Pontiac Solstice, the Opel GT, and the Saturn Sky?

The Solstice is a unique design, even if the three cars share modules and components. There is an element of nostalgia in the surface vocabulary, the fenders, and the hood. The Solstice is more classic in execution.

The Opel GT and the Sky share a modern surfacing with a graphic sectioning that complements the rest of our portfolio. They are modern in design and not nostalgic.

Why not take Opel to the U.S. market as Opel. Why use Saturn?

Saturn was a big success when it was launched. Then it didn't get much in the way of new products. At the same time, Opel launched its new design in Europe. We tested it in the U.S. and it did well in field research.

We also realized that Saturn customers are cross-shopping Volkswagen in the U.S. That became an opportunity for us, since we already have a brand, Opel, that competes with Volkswagen in Europe and a brand in the U.S. that could compete for a certain slice of the U.S. market with more European design. We will design cars here [in Russelsheim, Germany] for both Opel and Saturn, but the development effort will be a collaboration.

So are the Opel GT and the Saturn Sky a symbolic first step in this new direction for GM?

Yes. The GT and the Sky are the first vehicles where you see such a literal execution of that strategy. They are symbolic of the plan going forward.

Some auto analysts say the new Opel GT is too American in its styling -- too brawny and not classic enough for European tastes. And yet the old Opel GT has a very European styling. Isn't there a risk that in designing a car for two regions, you end up with one that pleases neither one nor the other?

Europeans are not necessarily looking for a car that is European in its design. They are looking for a car that fits their self-image. So the question of good design then becomes very subjective.

Successful products like the Apple iPod are recognized around the world as having great design. That shows how the influence of individual geographic markets is declining. The real question is: "Do you like this car? Does it articulate something to your peer group?" Customers are looking for products that embody their values. The trend is for people to decide themselves what look is "great design."

But Europeans tend to be conservative -- and their views on automotive design have been forged by a century of classic styling.

Actually America has much more affinity for nostalgia in car design than Europe. Its history is shorter, and it has less tradition to fall back on. That's why the Mustang is so successful.

In Europe, there is a liberalism that drives the modern aesthetic in design. European consumers are typically looking for something more progressive in auto design.

Just look at the premium market in Europe and the powerful influence of BMW, which has such bold design. Audi too has become very progressive. The trend in the premium segment is toward a more liberal aesthetic.

Is that why you took the risk of giving Opel such an edgy design?

Traditional Opel buyers do get anxious about change. Anything bold and new makes them nervous. But with the Astra, we targeted a new customer base. We hit social climbers and are now able to grow the Opel brand in a more progressive direction. And that's fine since it makes room for Chevrolet to enter the European market in the sector where Opel used to compete.


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