Can there be such a thing as a four-door utility coupe? It sounds like a contradiction, but in this age of crossover vehicles, anything is possible.
This month, auto enthusiasts will have a chance to inspect General Motors' four-door utility coupe - the Sabia, an Opel Corsa concept car built by GM's Brazilian designers - at the Detroit auto show. At first glance, the car looks as if a child assembled it using parts from two different model car kits. But the car is stylish, if unconventional.
Its presence at a major international show reveals GM do Brasil's growing design capabilities. Design director David Rand said GM's Brazilian designers are moving beyond cosmetic touch-ups on models being introduced to Brazil.
'In the next couple of years, you'll be seeing more Brazilian-designed products and not just for the Brazilian region,' Rand said. 'I think what you're going to see is a project where we have total design and engineering responsibility. We're not just doing projects for Brazil down here.'
Breaking into GM's auto show lineup was fairly simple, he said.
'I had a conversation with (GM design chief) Wayne Cherry a little after I came down here. He said, quite simply, `Why don't you consider doing a car for the Detroit auto show?' '
The Sabia - named after Brazil's national bird - is based on the Corsa's new Gamma platform. GM has showcased concepts by its Brazilian designers in the past. In 1999, the company unveiled the Ipanema, a concept based on the Corsa pickup made in Brazil. Brazilian designers also created a cabriolet version of the Chevrolet Celta. The new 'utility coupe' began its life as a sketch made by Luciano Nakamura, a designer from GM's design studio in Sao Caetano do Sul, near Sao Paulo.
The idea caught the attention of Nakamura's colleagues. Rand, himself a concept car veteran at GM, formed a team to refine the concept. His portfolio includes such cars as the exotic Corsa Tonga convertible, a double-rear axle S10 pickup and the Chevrolet Celta convertible, shown at the 2000 Sao Paulo auto show.
The utility coupe brings together apparently unrelated elements such as a coupe waistline, four doors and an open rear trunk.
'It looks like a pickup; it's very sporty and it comes up as an ideal recreational vehicle,' said Nelson de Barros, the Brazilian who manages GM's design studio in Sao Caetano. The unusual rear end can be used as a load space for small objects such as surfboards or camping gear. Another unconventional feature is the rear doors that open front to back. 'The car does without a center column, and the central hinge does a double job, opening up front and rear doors,' Barros said.
As is the case with all design centers, GM's Brazilian studio had to juggle its work on the concept with more conventional assignments, such as model-year face-lifts, consumer clinics and market research. But concept cars require a different set of skills, Barros says. 'That's when they are playing with guts and instinct. Working freely, designers can generate new ideas and such involvement is very different from what you get working on official projects.'
Designers generally create new concepts at the drawing board, then transfer them to computers where they can be refined. If a project is approved, the next step is a full-sized clay model. Then the designers make a fiberglass model, with or without mechanical underpinnings, and prototypes go to an auto show.
No one can say whether this utility coupe will reach a production line. But no one flatly denies this possibility. 'As designers, we must always look ahead,' Barros says. 'Sometimes, the concept is too far ahead of the market. Sometimes technology is not ready or it is too expensive. Then again, sometimes the right conditions just come together and ideas become real products.'
The design takes some cues from Opel. In Rand's view, Brazilian automotive design often is deeply influenced by European styles. But he says the Sabia also shows Brazilian adventurousness and emotion.
'This vehicle from the start was designed to be very emotional to try to connect with people,' he said. 'We want people to love it.'
Rand says the Sabia's strength is in its unusual mix of vehicle types. It was designed to be a contradiction, he said. For instance, the rear bed was deliberately made too small to hold the standard sized plywood and wallboard sheets that a traditional pickup customer would haul.
'I think we've made it pretty clear that that's not the use,' Rand said. 'We're not pretending to be that at all.'
With a length of 4,407 millimeters, it is small by North American standards. Its 1,530 millimeter height means that at close range, 'it doesn't feel small,' Rand said.
The utility coupe's prospects will improve if it gets favorable notices at the auto show. The concept car undoubtedly will undergo consumer clinics in Brazil, too. If it does well, GM will consider cost and other practical questions.
AIMING AT THE YOUNG
If the car enters production, GM's marketers would aim it at young people in South America, particularly city dwellers who use such vehicles for work and play.
But its target could vary in different markets, Rand said. Its platform and mechanical components are meant to work as a world project, not necessarily only for Brazil. In Brazil, at least, there is a market for such vehicles.
Brazil's pickup market is robust. It is growing consistently on the market appeal of 12 models that dominate 95 percent of sales. Small car-derived models such as the Chevrolet Corsa Picape, Fiat Strada, and Volkswagen Saveiro dominate the segment.
In the mid-sized pickup segment, the best sellers are the Chevrolet S10, Ford Ranger, Mitsubishi L200, Toyota Bandeirante and Toyota Hilux. Among the big pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado, Chrysler Dakota and Ford F-250 are the most important. With the exception of the Argentine-made Chevrolet Silverado, Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux, all products above are made in Brazil.
The designers of GM's utility coupe can take comfort that other Brazilian-designed prototypes made it to the market. One such vehicle is the Volkswagen Gol, a Polo derivative launched in 1980. Over the past 17 years, the Gol was Brazil's top-selling car. Already it has eclipsed the 3 million unit production record set by the original Volkswagen Beetle.
The Gol still is sold in several markets around the world, including Mexico. The Volkswagen Brasilia - another local design built on the Beetle platform and introduced in 1973 - anticipated modern hatchback cars. Yet another local experiment was Volkswagen's SP sports car. Using Volkswagen's reliable rear-engine platform, this early 1970s model was hailed by some as 'the most beautiful Volkswagen in the world.' The Chevrolet Corsa sedan, a design developed locally, is sold in several developing markets.
Brazil may produce more cars like these. Consider the Chevrolet Celta. Launched late last year in Brazil, this locally designed Corsa derivative is the first product out of GM's Blue Macaw assembly complex in Gravatai. GM already has announced plans to produce the Celta in its Shanghai assembly plant. And it seems probable that General Motors do Brasil will export it.
Does Brazil - and the world - have room for a four-door utility coupe? Keep your eye on the auto shows.
You can e-mail Vicente Alessi-Filho at [email protected]