Pity Detroit's auto designers. They walk a fine line between trying to be edgy without turning off mainstream America, not to mention winning approval from their own top executives. Get it right, and you've got the next Chrysler 300. Get it wrong, and you've got the now-dead Pontiac Aztek.
One thing is clear: Design is rising on automakers' priority lists. Models such as the Dodge Charger, Ford Mustang and Pontiac Solstice are bringing the domestic industry much-needed buzz.
The risks are enormous. Automakers spend roughly $1 billion to develop each new model, and consumer tastes can change in the four or five years it takes to bring the vehicle to market, says analyst Wes Brown of Iceology, a Los Angeles consulting firm.
But there's more at stake.
"There's a risk (for Detroit) to come out of the chute looking bland" with new models, says Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision of San Diego. "At some point, the domestics have to conquest, and styling is one way to do that."
Annual surveys by CNW Marketing/Research Inc. of Bandon, Ore., of people who intend to buy a new vehicle show that design is increasing in importance for shoppers. Only 39.1 percent of women surveyed in 1985 said "distinctive styling" was important. The figure rose to 64.7 percent this year. Men's preference for overall distinctive styling jumped from 68.3 percent in 1985 to 87.8 percent this year, CNW found.
The Chrysler 300 sedan is a case in point. For the first six months after the car went on sale in spring 2004, two-thirds of its buyers weren't even planning to buy a new car, says Art Spinella, president of CNW.
In fact, he says the "incredibly distinctive design" General Motors gave Cadillacs in the past five years is "what saved Cadillac."
Clay Dean, design director of GM's small and mid-sized cars and father of the burly Hummer H2, says that too often design has been a last consideration.
"When a company gets desperate because quality doesn't push sales and incentives don't push sales, then all the businesspeople realize they've exhausted all their ideas and look at design and styling," he says.
GM is in "a new era" under Vice Chairman Robert Lutz and others at its Detroit headquarters who have encouraged designers to be more expressive and take more risks, Dean says.
Since arriving in 2001, Lutz promised "gotta-have" models, but some observers were disappointed by the first manifestation of his efforts: the Buick LaCrosse.
Better days apparently are ahead. Analysts invited by GM in June to view models coming in the next 30 months have raved about the beautiful exteriors and interiors of those new cars and trucks.
Camilo Pardo, chief designer of Ford Motor Co.'s Living Legends Studio and of the Ford GT40, says critics of Detroit iron are focusing only on unsuccessful models. He likened it to the press deluge for celebrities caught doing something wrong.
Cookie with that?
"It's hard to design a mass car," he says. Some automakers don't want to offend consumers, so they don't take chances on design. Says Pardo: "You end up with something as easy to swallow as milk."
The biggest product development problem at GM and Ford isn't the designers but the system, says Brown.
The bold design of the Chrysler 300 has paid off handsomely for the Chrysler group.
Automakers with multiple layers of approvals can end up with ho-hum, design-by-committee models, as each group changes some styling feature, Spinella says. He cites a discussion with a Dodge designer on the revolutionary 1993 Ram pickup.
"The styling committee was directed to ignore anybody who didn't like it," he says. The truck was a smash because so many people appreciated the new and different big-rig look.
Chrysler repeated the love-hate balancing act when it developed the retro-looking PT Cruiser, which was launched in 2000.
At Ford, "There're a lot of people involved in design" and, depending on the model, different design committee structures, says Pardo, a 20-year Ford designer. "Sometimes you're working on a car and everybody in the world has their hands in it." Not surprisingly, he prefers a streamlined process with fewer people involved.
The Chrysler group's Jeff Gale, a designer who worked on the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum and Charger, rates the internal approval process there as "OK," with only occasional "comments from different people."
The automaker tests vehicles' styling early with consumers with concept cars and trucks at auto shows, he says.
Focus groups are used "late in the game for verification" just in case "something is really scary," he says.
"It's nice to be in a place where people are in tune with design," says Gale, who notes that "as a whole, product from Japan is more bland than product from Detroit."
Bland is how pundits painted both Ford and GM last fall for their new, dull-looking sedans: the Ford Five Hundred and Buick LaCrosse. Ford and GM executives defended the sedans' styling, saying the looks of the popular Toyota Camry aren't that snazzy, but it was the nation's best-selling car again last year.
But the Camry isn't about styling. It sells on the strength of the Toyota brand to consumers whose emotional needs are security and trust, so purchasers feel they're making a smart buy, says Strategic Vision's Gorrell.
Many Americans view their cars as mere transportation, as an appliance. "They see their cars as toasters," says industry veteran Charlie Hughes of consultant Brand Rules of Newport Beach, Calif. "Still, wouldn't you rather have a good-looking toaster unless the cost is too high?"