Car Designs Get Grades

By and large, I agree with the following feature. I would add that Porsche should get a D, because the only good designs they have are 40 years old, and they should be punished for the Cayenne. Also, I would say that Subaru is right now hovering in the C range, with an impreza which looks like a fat turnip, and the Legacy Outback which looks like a chubby dinosaur, and the Forester, which has as much visual impact as a dentist's ceiling. I would also give Saab an A-, because damn the 9-5 good looking. Finally, I would say that Audi should get an A. It is really in its stride right now, having grown organically out of its duller history of the 90's & 00's, and right now has some of the sexiest cars (ever?) made. The S5 is truly a thing of beauty..

Car Designers Graded - Feature

The world's major car designers get their report cards.

October 2010

Pages: 1 Photos

Car designers are a competitive lot. Some, whose familiar names we hear often, never fail to make the grade. Even though these design superstars often move around from one automaker to another, they nonetheless find themselves sitting at the head of the class no matter where they’re employed. And then there are a few designers whose obscurity is a function of their failure to produce a memorable design. These lesser-known designers probably aren’t in any hurry to bring home their report cards. Holding the grade book for us is Phil Patton, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York and automobile-design writer for the New York Times. On the following pages, Patton’s industry-wide critique calls out the brightest kids in the class, the cheaters, and those who might want to put their heads down on their drafting tables until recess. All of Mr. Patton’s grades for this year are final and, unlike in real school, cannot be negotiated.


The teacher’s pet, Audi has been the perennial star of the class for interior and exterior design for the past decade and a half. Now with Walter de’Silva having moved up to VW Group design head, Stefan Sielaff is in charge of Audi. The question is the future: The new A8 is pretty conservative. At Volkswagen, Klaus Bischoff may just be cheating off of de’Silva as his VW design is Audi-like: excellent proportions, a few creases, and a signature grille—but where’s the fun? The new Jetta and the upcoming U.S.-made Passat strike many as conservative and dull. But time will tell: Dull might turn out to be tastefully restrained, even classic.


Cleaning and crisping up things right now, Chris Bangle’s successor, Adrian van Hooydonk, is treading carefully. The conservative new 5-series appears to have quieted the critics. But a new generation of vehicles that borrows from the futuristic Vision EfficientDynamics concepts is on its way. Propellerheads, brace yourselves for more design controversy.


Chief of design Ralph Gilles is dancing as fast as he can, with color combos and special packages, until the new metal from the Fiat shotgun wedding is ready. The updated Jeep Grand Cherokee is as elegant and simple as a fine tool—and glimpses of the upcoming big sedans are promising. Hopefully, the Sebring will be buried soon.


After the much-criticized California, which seemed to assemble Ferrari features without an overall Ferrari theme, the mid-engine 458 Italia marks a return to form. Ferrari appears safe, at least for a while, in the hands of Lowie Vermeersch, design director of Pininfarina, and Ferrari’s design director, Flavio Manzoni.


Can it be that J Mays has headed up Ford design since 1997? His longevity is tied to his ability to keep things varied, and the sparkly Fiesta, the grinning Fusion, the boxy Flex, and the pudgy Edge are all finding fans. The upcoming Focus is a much-needed reprieve from the current Focus. Lincoln, long starved, has a looker in the MKS. Mays’s team includes wise vets, Moray Callum and Freeman Thomas, but lost Peter Horbury when he returned to Volvo.

General Motors————————

Bob Lutz couldn’t save Pontiac with a car as fetching as the Solstice, but Ed Welburn appears to be reviving Buick. The LaCrosse is doing for the brand what the Malibu did for Chevrolet. Add the radical Camaro and the clean Cruze, and Chevy looks good. Cadillac continues to build upon its unique look with concepts like the Converj, proving there’s real depth behind all those creases.


Acura ought to have a movie tie-in deal: With its breve-shaped metal mouths, its cars look more like the original Transformer toys than any of the GM products that are featured in those “films.”

Honda’s cars used to look a lot better. The mission statement of Honda design lists “people” as one of three key inputs, but the company rarely singles out any people on its design staff. Few are mentioned by name—at least outside the California studio, where Dave Marek of Honda and Jon Ikeda of Acura are at work.

There’s design that celebrates engineering and efficiency, like that of the practical Fit. But why the unnatural affection for fastback rooflines that descend with the sickening skid of a recent 401k value chart, as on the ZDX and the Crosstour?


Now under design director Oh Suk-Geun, Hyundai is taking design seriously and has stopped mimicking Mercedes and playing with Jaguar themes. With GM vet Phil Zak replacing Joel Piaskowski in the California studio and BMW vet Thomas Buerkle in the European studio, the company has the talent to progress. The Mercedes CLS–derived Sonata looks good now but might date quickly.

Jaguar/Land Rover—————

Under Ian Callum, Jag “made the hard decisions,” as the politicians say, to break with its heritage designs. On the XJ, the long, raked rear glass and the blacked-out C-pillars were shocking at first, but the retro design of the previous XJ had to be left behind. Stablemate Land Rover has done well sticking with the castles-on-wheels essence of the brand. Gerry McGovern, whose excellent concepts for Lincoln were never sent into production, is modulating the tradition nicely in the smaller Evoque, although, what’s with the Frenchified name?


Our science-fair star: Peter Schreyer, the little guy with the huge glasses, has gone from Audi to upstart Kia. Along with Tom Kearns, formerly of Cadillac, Schreyer has made the company’s cars cool. The Soul is better-looking than its cubist competition and has proved popular with kids and giant hamsters. The Forte Koup and the new Optima are mature designs to be taken seriously.


From the RX-8 down to the huggable Mazda 2, the company has benefited from a string of top designers. But Moray Callum has gone to Ford, Laurens van den Acker to Renault, and Franz von Holzhausen to Tesla. Now, Mazda says it will depart from the nagare look, the flowing style that worked on concept cars but proved hard to adapt to production vehicles. The new Shinari concept (above) wears the organic and dynamic kodo design language of Ikuo Maeda, Mazda’s global head of design.


With the SLS and now the big-haunched CLS, Gorden Wagener is carving out a new look that combines a dose of history (grilles) with sculpture (leonine rear ends and taut sidelines). However, the latest E-class isn’t as good as some of the latest designs. Wagener hired one of BMW’s top designers, Karim Habib, who worked on the 7-series. Look for pushback from the faithful until the new style is digested.


The brand’s signature upside-down grille is reminiscent of a field-farmed catfish. What does it say when the “bean on wheels” i-MiEV car—the electric version of a Japanese kei model that resembles a blueberry jelly bean—is the looker of the lineup? We’re not naming names here.


Design head Shiro Nakamura is one of the most respected men in automotive design, and his course load is heavy: He has given a clearer identity to Infiniti and has attempted to make the electric Leaf a positive corporate symbol. Nissan’s new Juke will appeal to the video-game set, and you can’t quarrel with the way he has kept the Z-car and the GT-R fresh. But that QX? What the hell?


The purists—i.e., any Porsche owner or fan—are fearful, now that the Volkswagen Group is in charge, that Porsches will start to look like 914s. Meanwhile, design chief Michael Mauer (formerly of Saab) is still taking flak for the bulbous Panamera. Offering anything new in Porsche design is like pushing a cell phone to the Amish.


Once the class cutup, Trollhättan seems to have taken some Saabness out of the 9-5. Which is to say, the new 9-5 is seriously elegant. Saab just hired Jason Castriota, formerly of Pininfarina, whose sketches of the upcoming 92 show that he understands Saab styling.


Although the jury is still out on the Legacy, Osamu Namba has brought purposefulness back—after the Tribeca’s Edsel-grille debacle of former Subaru designer Andreas Zapatinas, who left the car world to design elevator cabins and doors. The WRX is functional without being pretty. The wheel wells say four-wheel drive, and the body speaks of owners who are practical and not fashion victims. Finally, the scoop and the wing on the WRX look sporty, not just silly. (The STI logo is a favorite, by the way, with its American Basketball Association–inspired lettering.)


No one takes credit for the big watermelon-slice grin on the face of the Kizashi—certainly not consultant Pininfarina, who did the SX4. The little-known Moriyoshi Hattori, who appears on the company’s organizational chart as “general manager, automobile styling department” must get the blame. He’s done better: The tiny Cappuccino comes to mind.


Shouldn’t there be recalls for dullness? Consumer warnings for homeliness? The company’s president, Akio Toyoda, has said he is determined that his cars should have bolder and more interesting design. Simon Humphries, general manager of global design, directed the development of the highly abstract, head-scratching design themes “Vibrant Clarity” for Toyota and “L-Finesse” for Lexus.


The brief, overly hip reign of Steve Mattin at Volvo design ended recently with the return of Peter Horbury. And not a moment too soon. Look for the melting ice of Mattin’s era to be succeeded by a more staid, square look fit for the economic times.

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