What is it that's so special about a tie from Versace, or a yacht built by Fedship? What motivates people to pay $150 for a cravat or $15 million for a special watercraft? In a word, style.

The lack of it can scuttle an engineering masterpiece. And the presence of that palpable but ineffable quality is powerful enough to drive the bottom line and even eradicate zero percent financing and i" />

Issue: Dec 2003


Fast Lane



Anything for Style

by Rob Wilson

What is it that's so special about a tie from Versace, or a yacht built by Fedship? What motivates people to pay $150 for a cravat or $15 million for a special watercraft? In a word, style.

The lack of it can scuttle an engineering masterpiece. And the presence of that palpable but ineffable quality is powerful enough to drive the bottom line and even eradicate zero percent financing and incentives. This has put design on an equal footing with engineering.

Styling is what this issue is all about. As the industry girds for the Los Angeles and Detroit Auto Shows, what better time to put styling under the microscope, seeking out those new directions in design. The proliferation of vehicle models across the full spectrum of cars, hybrids, minivans, SUVs, crossovers and light trucks, together with shortened product cycles, drives the styling burden exponentially.

Today the same development support is necessary in every market segment because all of them are so hotly contested. Lots of man years of design effort goes into vehicles that never reach the prototype much less the production stage. For every design that does see production, there are another half dozen designs scuttled on the studio floor.

Additionally, whether it's the interior design of a luxury car or down market truck, the industry puts far more effort into the clever and smart blending of aesthetic aspects to provide the ultimate in ergonomics, sensory appeal, convenience, comfort and safety.

In part, at least, the mad rush on the part of domestic OEMs to gentrify SUVs, trucks and now crossovers to equal or exceed the appeal levels found in cars took resources away from the passenger cars.

It almost seemed the Big 3 were abandoning that traditional segment. Steep sales incentives and cheesy reskins are simply no match for fresh new models, no match for styling. Consumer tastes change over time and new looks drive that change.

Overseas-based OEMs swooped in and filled the vacuum in the passenger car segments converting it to conquest sales. Now their attention is equally on all non-car segments and the gains there are also significant across the board.

But I do think we are seeing the beginning of a renaissance in passenger car styling and design from the domestic OEMs. It is particularly evident at GM where brands are being carefully recast and redefined nameplate by nameplate.

The restoration of Cadillac is all but done, ironically accomplished on the shoulders of the Escalade SUV. That success infused new brand interest and bought time to launch some very smart new passenger cars with an all new look for this grand old nameplate.

Chevy is a work in progress, and the new Pontiac GTO shows good early foot. This year Saturn and Buick will make some important moves. The outcome is unclear, but it's styling that holds the key to success.

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