Car styling undergoes shake-up
Design diversity at an all-time high, but some fear CO2 rules will result in cluttered looks
Car design is at a crossroads. There is more diversity in form language today than ever before as each company defines its own expression. There is, however, an increasing trend toward consistency across brands and segments that has some design executives worried.
Volkswagen Group Design Director Walter de Silva blames aerodynamics for the trend. He says designers are under pressure to make cars more wind-tunnel friendly so they are more fuel efficient and produce fewer CO2 emissions. He says this will lead to complex-looking vehicles cluttered with unnecessary exterior graphics. "A wind tunnel does not care about brand image," de Silva told Automotive News Europe.
Ford of Europe Executive Director of Design Martin Smith disagrees. “There are many ways to design an aerodynamic vehicle. Look at the most recent Mercedes cars: they are very efficient. They don’t look at all like they were designed by the wind tunnel,” Smith told ANE.
Mercedes Vice President of Design Gorden Wagener says the new C class best embodies his new design philosophy, which is called Sensual Purity. “There is only a single line on that car. Other than that it’s pure, clean, sheer surfacing,” Wagener told ANE. “We are not doing wedge-shaped cars anymore. Wedge-shape for me is kind of late ’90s, a bit dated. We’ve actually been inspired more by 1930s-era streamline design.”
Wagener has redefined Mercedes’ design language since succeeding Peter Pfeiffer in 2008. His influence can now be seen in products such as the CLA, GLA, S class and S-class coupe. The consistency of the Mercedes look is not new, however.
“The industry is beginning to realize, consciously or unconsciously, that the design of a car is not just about looking a certain way but about signifying the brand,” Sam Livingstone, director of UK-based consulting firm Car Design Research, said. Mercedes, BMW and Audi are embracing this trend with smaller and larger versions of vehicles that have a common aesthetic. Livingstone said that this trend will only increase as brands aim to make their mark on a new customer base in emerging markets.
To some, this trend is not seen as advancing the current design paradigm. Former BMW Group design director Chris Bangle, who is one of the most outspoken critics of the current state of the automotive design industry, contends that people have preconceived notions of what cars should look like and there is a general lack of courage to get past them. “It’s not where we were and it’s not where we’re going to wind up,” Bangle told ANE. “Where we’re going to wind up is with cars that drive themselves. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s get it over with.”
While purity is a buzzword in the industry, sheer surfaces like those seen on the new Volkswagen Golf appear to be giving way to more voluminous, sensual forms while, as de Silva fears, layered surface treatments are also increasing. The key takeaway is that brands are looking to create an emotional bond with the consumer.
Two exterior trends seem to be gaining momentum based on the models shown at this year’s Geneva auto show. “One is a very graphic orientation of car design, which is really less about shapes per se and more about the strength of the graphics that encompass them,” Bangle said. “The other is one where surfaces begin to pull away from the volumes beneath them and are understood in a certain amount of thinness.”
While the graphic orientation trend is most obvious in the front end treatment of the new Toyota Aygo as well as the doors and fenders on the Citroen C4 Cactus’ Airbumps, the so-called “floating” surface treatment is illustrated on BMW’s i vehicles, which communicate a visual lightness.
Hyundai’s Intrado concept depicted both floating and the voluminous surfacing in Geneva. Even the VW brand hinted at changes with its T-ROC concept, adding surface definition previously unseen on its products. “We are known as a brand with a very timeless, clean design approach with lines that are following a certain graphical language,” Volkswagen brand design boss Klaus Bischoff told ANE. “Though we stay true to ourselves we’re giving the design a new dimension and emotional approach.”
Lighting the way
Headlamps and taillamps remain vital elements in communicating brand identity and signaling technologically advanced products. For the last several years, Audi has employed a thin LED strip in the headlamps of every vehicle line, a move other brands have followed. The new trend is that lamps are getting smaller. “It will become a major, perhaps the major signifier of a car from the 20-teens,” Livingstone said. “Large lights will start looking old fashioned. Small lights are the trend.” Separately, Audi and BMW are racing to be the first automaker to offer a production car with the next frontier for headlamps: laser lights, which are due to debut on a model during the second half of the year.
Authenticity is another buzzword among designers. Leather and wood are staples but there is a strong shift toward using sustainable materials to communicate a new type of premium. “At one point if you wanted to be in the automotive luxury space you had to put wood and leather into the interiors,” said Adriana Monk, a former interior designer for Lincoln, Jaguar and Land Rover who now runs her own consultancy. “Now you have to tell the environmental story otherwise you’re not credible.”
Recyclable plant fibers and PET bottles, as well as environmentally friendly textiles and leather tanning techniques, are featuring alongside the progressive integration of more “technical” materials such as aluminum, carbon fiber and synthetic polymers. Wood is now being treated differently in seemingly endless variations, from open-pore applications to untreated finishes, while leather is being shown in a variety of quilting patterns and gradient changes. Gradation can be seen via perforations on BMW’s 2 series and in color on the VW T-ROC’s blue leather seats. Derived from high-end fashion and furniture, quilting has begun to trickle down from the luxury segment to mainstream models. Playing to these trends, Mini chose to use a blue-limed ash grain -- a fresh way to accentuate the traditional material -- as well as a quilted X pattern on the light blue seats of the Clubman concept.
Lighter, more spacious
The sustainability trend is more than just touting environmental credentials. “[Making interiors appear] lighter is a way you can give the customer a feeling of sustainability,” Hans-Peter Wunderlich, creative interior design studio director at Mercedes, told ANE. “If you find a design language where you split off the volumes and work with floating geometries and shapes, this always gives you the feeling that it’s breathing and that it’s light. And what is light is always sustainable.”
Reducing switchgear in the cabin reflects an increasing trend toward simplification and adds a sense of spaciousness. Two-tone instrument panels, where the lower half is a lighter shade than the top half also gives the illusion of increased space, as do floating seats hanging cantilevered from the center console.
Area of concern
While designers have been finding innovative solutions to a number of interior and exterior challenges, they continue to struggle with the seamless integration of smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronics in the car. Following the launch of Apple’s CarPlay system in models from Mercedes, Volvo and Ferrari at the Geneva show, much of the debate surrounds the use of touchscreens and whether or not they are suitable for automotive applications. Most agree, however, that the current state of in-car systems is an area where most manufacturers fall short. “The situation is still remarkably poor,” Livingstone said. “When young people get into a highly specified car this is still the major area where a car will let itself down.”
From an aesthetic perspective, center-mounted free-floating screens are pervasive on vehicles from BMW and Mercedes, standing free from the core IP architecture. VW Group’s answer to the problem is its so-called “virtual cockpit” where the instrument panel also serves as the navigation system screen and infotainment display. The first car to offer the solution is the new third-generation Audi TT. Variations on the theme have appeared in the T-ROC and Skoda’s Vision C concept. In the future, we’ll see “a mix of all the systems, which means voice control, gesture control,” Wunderlich said. “I’m not saying you won’t have touch-sensitive elements, but the main guidance of the car will have to be with a system that you can handle with blind input.”
Luca Ciferri contributed to this report