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Saturn’s Next Frontier

GM design chief Ed Welburn gives Saturn a new look that will appeal to its new audience.

Ed Welburn has been General Motors’ Design Vice President for nearly a year, and he’s still so excited he can’t sit down. “I’m standing up,” he shared with us halfway through a recent phone interview, “because I’ve got a bunch of photographs in front of me. Plus when I’m talking about the subject, I can’t sit still. I’m that passionate about it.”

The Saturn Sky roadster will make its debut at the 2005 North American International Auto Show. Ed Welburn says that the Sky will be to Saturn what Evoq was to Cadillac.
We were discussing the new direction of Saturn, which is on the verge of a Cadillac-like design renaissance to be revealed at Detroit’s January 2005 North American International Auto Show. We understand why he’s excited about Saturn; we attended an off-the-record preview this summer, but we can’t show it until next month. Trust us, the wait will be worth it!

What you will see in January is a two-seat roadster almost sexy enough to make you forget the stunning Pontiac Solstice with which it will share GM’s new rear-wheel-drive Kappa platform. And a crisply handsome mid-size sedan on the excellent (Chevy Malibu/Pontiac G6/Opel Omega/Saab 9-3) Epsilon platform with a highly un-Saturn-like high-zoot interior. Both made us go, “Wow!”… a reaction seemingly shared by everyone who saw it that day.

Remember when Saturns were great-looking, oft-imitated styling leaders? Neither do we, because it’s never happened in the brand’s brief life span. GM believed until recently that the unsurpassed Saturn ownership experience would be sufficient to sell substantial volumes of uninspiring, so-so cars. But that is about to change. Really!

Saturn’s plan is to continue expanding its lineup while moving upward out of Chevrolet’s way into the more-youthful-than-Buick, moremature- than-Pontiac fertile territory once ineffectively occupied by GM’s now defunct Oldsmobile division. For example, a third star of that tantalizingly short future product show — which we can’t yet discuss — was an early Saturn version of GM’s coming 2007-08 midsize SUVan crossovers. They pulled the cover off of it briefly, and we didn’t get a peek at the interior, but it looked like another solid “Wow!”

GM design chief Ed Welburn spends much of his time traveling to all of GM’s global design centers as he works on development of the new Saturns.
Welburn wouldn’t yet show us pictures, so we asked for a description of Saturn’s new design vocabulary in words. “I consider it very international in nature, very clean, very distinctive,” he responded. “And there will be a very strong face.” He also pointed out that Cadillac’s recent design revival provided a model for Saturn, beginning with the production roadster as a ‘halo’ to set the direction as the Evoq roadster concept did for Cadillac.”

We recall prominent chrome bars across the faces of all three future vehicles. “That is a major element,” he said. “In the past, you had the Saturn emblem sometimes within a grille, sometimes above it, and sometimes there was no grille at all. This is a far more integrated face, and whether it’s the roadster, the mid-size sedan, the next generation VUE or any other vehicle that we bring to market, you will see that trademark central grille with the bar at the top and the Saturn logo integrated into it. The sides are very sheer, with a real edge to them. And there’s a common theme with a common taillamp treatment in the rear.”

By “edge,” did he mean Cadillac-like sharpedged forms? “Yes, hard-edged with hard crease lines, but there’s a significant amount of crown, or form development, between those crease lines. It’s not a ‘folded cardboard’ design.”

Since he replaced Wayne Cherry at the beginning of this year, how has GM’s design development process evolved? “We’re a close global team now,” Welburn explained. “We can really utilize the power of global collaboration. Our design centers around the world were involved in this future Saturn theme, from our studios here in Detroit to advance studios in California and another in the U.K., which developed the Vauxhall Lightning concept from which the new Saturn roadster theme was derived. We also learned quite a bit from Opel, which worked with us on the midsize sedan. One other studio — which I can’t mention yet — had some involvement as well. The collaboration was very good.

“We’ve been working for a number of years on developing a technology that enables live VR [virtual reality] reviews with all the studios simultaneously, and in the past year it has really come together. As an example, this past Friday, I had a review with our design teams from China, Australia and Brazil, along with our advance studio in California. We were able to review advance designs together, all viewing the same things on-screen in their local areas, and discuss them live. It was really good, like we were all in the same room. And at the end of the review, we can send data to any of the sources for further development.

Buick is next in line for a design renaissance with the Velite convertible concept hinting at the new direction.
“We’re using that technology on a very regular basis, but the key is — and I can’t stress this enough — we still need direct contact.” Meaning that a fair amount of travel is still required to get new global designs developed and ultimately approved? “Correct,” Welburn conceded. “In fact, I’ll be in Brazil on Thursday of this week. We can go pretty far with virtual reviews, but we can’t really buy off on a design until we walk around a physical property. It’s easier for the Design team to do that because we do it every day. But there’s a limit to how much time I want to spend reviewing designs in virtual reality with people outside of design.

He added that VR reviews tend to focus on a specific project, while global conference calls typically involve strategy discussions. “And periodically,” he said, “the whole global team will get together, generally around one of the major auto shows.”

GM has been widely and correctly criticized for being slow to improve both real and perceived quality of its interior fits, finishes and materials. One reason, Welburn admitted, was a past unbalanced emphasis on exterior to the detriment of interior design. No more, especially since GM North America Chairman and product development guru Robert Lutz arrived in September 2001 and began jacking up the importance and the priority of world-class interiors.

“It has become a huge priority in the company,” Welburn emphasized. “The best designs happen when design and engineering work in collaboration, and I credit [former Interior Design Executive Director] Anne Asensio and [Interior Engineering Executive Director] John Calabrese. They really pushed this initially, it was very hard work, and I credit Anne with breaking down some barriers. She has now moved on to lead Advanced Design. Dave Rand has taken over interiors in North America and has continued to push the team, and we have staffed his team with the absolute best designers, who work collaboratively and very quickly.

“One good analogy might be learning to be a great painter. Artists have to start with the basics, learn the fundamentals and learn by doing some very straightforward still life paintings before they can start getting more creative and experimental. They did that in interiors, went back to the fundamentals, started to develop some solid interior design, then gradually built on that and became more creative. The work they’re doing today is not only very good interior design with great materials, it’s also very creative.”

By managing the engineering and the design of the entire vehicle, GM has been able to put better design and material quality in its interiors. The stylish cockpit of the 2005 Pontiac G6 is a prime example.
Do higher quality interiors necessarily drive higher costs? “There is more cost in the interiors,” Welburn responded, “but I would say in many areas it’s just attention to detail and dedication to quality that are bringing some real advances. The teams are stronger and very dedicated, and not just the interior design team but also the color and trim department, which has renewed energy. It’s a number of things. It’s managing development of the entire vehicle, interior and exterior, and getting the right balance between them. It’s the relationship between Design and Engineering, relationships with suppliers and understanding their capabilities. And establishing a strong vision for what a given interior should be.”

How does improving relationships result in better interiors? “We’re able to get relationships between instrument panels and doors like we’ve not been able to in the past, which gives the interior a more flowing look from door to IP. Integration of instrument panels to consoles is done in a way that we’ve not been able to achieve in the past. Instrument panels are lower and further away from the occupants, giving interiors a more spacious appearance. That’s all due to design and engineering working better together. We create a very strong vision for a given interior very early with the advanced engineers, which makes it a whole lot easier for everyone to get on board with the design.”

Finally, more than Saturn’s new direction and stronger-than-ever emphasis on quality interiors, how would GM’s new Design VP sum up his overall philosophy? He thinks for a moment, then responds: “A design really needs to be a strong statement, and we will continue to execute strong designs. That is why we have more than one brand, each with a very different character. And that carries into interior designs, material selections, colors and trim.”

And once Saturn’s revival is well underway (which it is), what comes next? Get used to the novel idea of a stunningly gorgeous new design direction at Buick. It didn’t happen with that marque’s new 2005 LaCrosse mid-size sedan, a fine car that has taken flack for its ho-hum conservative (and derivative) appearance. But we know it’s just around the corner. Look at last year’s sensuous Buick Velite convertible concept for a very strong clue, and watch this space a year from now.

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