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New cars strive for bolder looks
'Design DNA' is all the rage as carmakers try to make their vehicles stand for something.
By Sam Grobart, MONEY magazine


DETROIT (MONEY) - For today's automakers, it's what's on the outside that counts.

As design has become increasingly important to a car company's success, almost every auto manufacturer is looking for a distinctive look that will help it stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Chrysler, which continually wows consumers with its bold style, is the only one of the Big Three to increase market share in 2005.

2007 Jaguar XK convertible
2007 Jaguar XK convertible
Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

It wasn't that long ago that a carmaker would have a lineup that consisted of many different looks, but if this year's Detroit auto show is any indication, that's all been left at the curb. Having a "design language" that represents a brand's "DNA" is all the rage now, as entire collections of cars go under the knife to develop a family resemblance.

Ford launched its new Edge SUV (though the automaker would rather you call it a Crossover Utility Vehicle, or CUV) at the Detroit show, furthering the corporate look that will eventually be on all vehicles in the automaker's stable. The new three-bar grill, first seen on the Fusion midsize sedan, makes an appearance here, as it did on the company's Super Chief full-size pickup concept.

Peter Pfeiffer, chief of design for Mercedes-Benz, agrees that his job has gotten a lot busier.

"Mercedes was always known for its engineering, but it's just as important that we have a recognizable style," he says.

The designer was at the show to unveil the new GL-class full-size SUV, as well as the new flagship S65 sedan. The two models were side by side at the display, and while they serve entirely different purposes (and clienteles), common design elements were there: pronounced wheel arches, a crease that runs the length of the body (often called a "character line"), and a bold, upright grill.

"The Mercedes look is one of self-assurance. It's more aggressive than in the past," says Dr. Pfeiffer. "All the lines on our cars must flow into other surfaces and contours, assuring that the car's shape remains fluid and powerful."

'Vanilla' sundae

Toyota's Camry, the best selling car in the U.S. for the past seven years, was redesigned for 2006 and debuted at Detroit this week. Toyota itself acknowledged that the previous car, while a sales leader, was often described by its owners as "vanilla", "bread and butter" and "dad's car."

"A play-it-safe-redesign of the Camry was out of the question," said Don Esmond, a senior executive with the carmaker. "The market, and the segment in which Camry competes, is just too competitive."

Instead, the Camry has a more "athletic" look, along with cues in the headlamps and grill that connect it to both its full-sized sibling, the Avalon, along with the company's new subcompact Yaris.

Taking risks

Not all design efforts are met with universal acclaim, but car companies now tend to choose the latter when the choice is between a bold design strategy and a safe, conservative path

When BMW initiated its new look with its 7-series in 2002, the response was passionate -- passionately negative (that said, sales of the new 7 were, and remain, robust).

But Chris Bangle, BMW's chief of design, has no regrets.

"If you look at many of the new cars coming out today, you'll see that they're dealing with many of the same things we were dealing with with the 7," he says. "We just started grappling with them first, so we got more attention for it."

David Schiavone, a product manager at Cadillac (which has championed a chunky, angular look that the company calls "Art & Science"), says that the brand's bold designs are inherently risky, but that's part of their appeal.

Cadillac displayed the redesigned Escalade SUV at the show this year.

"Our design is polarizing: some people love it, some don't, but it's better than being bland," he said.

Detroit Auto Show: Design DNA gallery Top of page

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