The new design frontier: Making small cars look stunning

For years, style was absent without an excuse from American subcompacts. But the days of slab-sided, no-frills hatchbacks may soon be history.

Automotive News
5 min read

Automotive News

For years, style was absent without an excuse from American subcompacts. But the days of slab-sided, no-frills hatchbacks may soon be history.

For decades, something was missing in the small cars designed, built and sold in the United States. It was gone for so long that most American consumers probably didn't know what it was.

But to Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group's chief designer, the missing ingredient was obvious. U.S. subcompacts lacked emotional appeal.

"Small cars of the past were not necessarily done with passion," he said.

Generations of Detroit designers seemed to say: No one buys a small car for its styling, so why bother? Uninspired, appliancelike econoboxes? What else did you expect?

American subcompacts had none of the attributes found in the cool, quirky and even elegant small cars created elsewhere in the world, from the original BMC Mini to the first Peugeot 205 to the modern Citroen C3.

U.S. automakers were forced to churn out small cars to raise corporate average fuel economy averages, so they could keep selling big trucks. Small-car design? An oxymoron.

But consumer preference has shifted -- the result of higher gasoline prices, new fuel-efficiency standards and concern about climate change.

"Small cars and vehicles powered by four-cylinder engines have been on a steady increase since 2004," said Ford Motor Co. sales analyst George Pipas.

U.S. fleets must average 35.5 mpg by 2016, compared with 25.3 mpg this year. Combined with stricter emissions standards, it means the number of small-car nameplates for sale in the United States will increase.

And when a market segment gets crowded, automakers must rely on styling to set their vehicles apart from the crowd.

"It's not business as usual for small cars here anymore," said Moray Callum, Ford Motor's design director for cars.

The expanding lineup of new small cars means styling will get a lot more creative and appealing, just as it did with mid-sized cars recently. (Think of the modern Chevrolet Malibu, the new Ford Taurus and the current Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.)

Callum said North America is becoming more like Europe and Asia, where even the most basic entry-level cars have style -- cars such as the Citroen C3 and Fiat 500.

As consumers move out of larger vehicles, Callum said, they won't lose their desire for eye-catching rides.

"Styling will be one of the most important factors," he said. "As consumers downsize their vehicles, they will expect the same level of craftsmanship, features and attention to design detail they find in larger, more expensive cars."

Among the Detroit 3, Ford is up first with a stylish small car -- the Europe-designed Fiesta hatchback, which arrives here next spring.

With its swept-back windshield; large grille; long, thin headlights; and high tail, the Fiesta has been a hit in Europe. It will be the first stylish small car from a U.S. automaker to challenge the modern Mini, the car credited with helping change Americans' attitudes toward subcompacts.

"We're using design to distinguish the Fiesta in the marketplace," said Callum.

GM's new look

General Motors Co. is counting on styling to be important for even the smallest and least expensive vehicles in the Chevrolet lineup.

"I don't like boring cars, and I don't think our customers do, either," said Ed Welburn, GM's vice president of global design. "Some people want more extroverted cars than others. But even the cleanest, simplest, most conservative design should not be boring. Small cars can have another image."

Yet if any company is guilty of committing grave crimes against small-car styling over the years, it's GM. Cases in point: The Chevrolet Chevette, Vega and Cavalier, as well as all their siblings that wore other brand badges. All instantly forgettable.

But a few weeks ago, GM invited the press to visit its Warren, Mich., design studios for an unprecedented and confidential look at many future products. Among the dozen or so vehicles were three small Chevrolets: the Spark, Cruze and redesigned Aveo.

Unlike previous Chevrolet and GM small cars sold in North America, the new small Chevys are expressive, take chances and will shock the senses of consumers whose image of small Chevrolets is locked in the past.

For instance, the quad headlights, accent lines on the hood and tall rear end on the 2011 Aveo give the small hatchback a funky European look, like something that could have come from Renault.

The smaller three-door Spark, also due in 2011, is a stubby Ford Fiesta-fighter with swept-back headlights that run the length of the hood, from grille to windshield.

The smoothly styled Cruze, scheduled to arrive next year, will do battle with the Mazda3 and Nissan Versa.

The Mini factor

Consumers have proved they will pay a premium for a small car with visual appeal. The Mini's iconic '60s-influenced styling has been a major factor in its sales success, said Jim McDowell, vice president of BMW's Mini brand.

"Prior to the Mini, small meant inexpensive and not very pleasant," he said. "There's something very alluring about the styling."

Tom Matano, director of industrial design at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, said the Mini has raised the bar for all automakers selling small cars in the United States.

"It's not just an econobox like a Civic or Corolla," he said. "It's got cachet."

Matano, a former Mazda design chief, said he expects styling to vary widely if Americans finally accept small cars. "If the market gets bigger, designs will diversify," he said.

Matano said Daimler's Smart may have a big influence on small cars. "Right now Smart may be creating a commuter look," he said.

Indeed, Toyota's iQ and several other microcars all seem to owe a debt to Smart.

What will separate a new generation of small cars from those that previously failed to win U.S. buyers? In a word, emotion, said Chrysler's Gilles.

"I look at the original 1980s Escorts and Omnis," he said. "They were good cars but not necessarily provocative."

Chrysler's mission, under the guidance of new owner Fiat S.p.A., is "to make them not just fuel-efficient but very compelling," Gilles said.

Gilles said a change has occurred in the design atmosphere at Chrysler under new CEO Sergio Marchionne, who took over in June after the automaker emerged from bankruptcy. Gilles expects to draw inspiration from the success that Fiat has had in recent years in creating attractive small packages -- an expertise built up over many decades.

Gilles said he is impressed with the Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo MiTo.

"I noticed the Fiat 500 when it first came out and said, 'Wow, look what they've done,' " he said.

"The 500 is extremely well-designed, very efficient packagewise but very emotional.

"I have to give my guys over the ocean a lot of credit. They've really dominated small cars."

Gilles, 39, has a few words for skeptics who say Americans won't buy small cars.

"There's a wonderful generation of Americans coming along -- the millennials," he said. "They don't have the same paradigms that even my generation has. I think the time is right for a new design paradigm."

Gilles sees America not as one homogeneous market but as a "fractured market" with lots of pockets of interests.

"You've got 50-year-olds acting like 20-year-olds and vice versa," he said. "It's becoming very lifestyle-centric. As long as you execute the product extremely well, they will come."

(Source: Automotive News)