TURIN - European designers have come through the dark days when cars were shaped by the wind tunnel only.
'The rounded, bulbous shapes of many of today's cars have no identity,' says Patrick Le Quement, Renault's design director. 'Look away and you can't remember any of their distinguishing features.'
But times are changing. With new materials and production technology, stylists have more freedom than ever before. Carmakers are using design as a strategic tool to create new images and market positions.
With so much freedom, no single design trend has emerged among European manufacturers in the mid-1990s. In the lower-medium segment, for example, the main rivals have followed different strategies.
Volkswagen played safe with its fourth-generation Golf by choosing an evolutionary reinterpretation of the previous Golf's basic design cues.
Ford took the opposite route. The Focus has cut all links with the Escort. Instead, the 'New Edge' design of the Focus represents a revolution for the traditional Ford buyer.
General Motors took both approaches with its new Astra. The Astra station wagon and forthcoming coupe are an evolution of the basic design themes of the previous Astra wagon and the Calibra. The three- and five-door hatchbacks, by contrast, have nothing in common with their predecessors. They look more advanced than the new Golf, but less radical - and risky - than the Focus.
For volume manufacturers especially, it is hard to strike the right balance between innovation and evolution.
Designers often push for innovation, while marketing and finance people argue for evolution.
A major innovation can mark the beginning and end of an era in the history of a company - and sometimes of a whole market segment, as the first Golf did in 1974.
'In my opinion, the Focus is the car that marks the end of the current century and the beginning of the new one,' says Claude Lobo, Ford of Europe design director. 'From a philosophical, psychological and technological point of view, it is a car that marks an era. I think it is very remarkable for Ford to have made a car that announces that the year 2000 has arrived.'
Design is a fast and effective way to reposition a brand. In less than three years Volvo has overcome its image as a maker of tame, boxy family wagons and sedans. The turning point was the S40, launched in September 1995.
'Since the S40 we have become braver, and our next cars, designed together with our studio in California, will confirm this trend,' says Volvo Design Director Peter Horbury.
'We have not lost our brand image,' he says. 'We have realized that 1/8being Swedish' is a positive thing: No Swedish designer would ever design anything unsafe. But the safety of a product is also expressed by visual design.
'We need to broaden our customer base,' says Horbury. Volvo needs to attract 'young users not yet subject to family constraints, and those with grown-up children who would like to return to a car with different, perhaps sportier, connotations.'
With increased flexibility, designers can choose between images of the past and visions of the future.
Retro design has existed for more than 10 years, since Japanese carmakers built low-volume models like the Nissan Figaro and PAO. In Europe, mainstream production models dressed up with classic details, such as Jaguar-style radiator grilles, began to emerge.
'They were a reaction to futuristic concepts,' says Peter Schreyer, design director of Audi. 'Now it has become a powerful movement, but with a different approach. Modern retro design is an interpretation of the past on an intellectual level. You use traditional design themes like headlamp shapes or window openings. But you shouldn't be repeating details such as chrome ornaments.'
However, Schreyer says that retro design has yet to emerge fully in Europe. Possibly the strongest retro design was Giorgetto Giugiaro's Bugatti EB112 sedan, but the car never went beyond a research prototype.
The few examples are low-volume cars such as the Jaguar XK8 and the Ferrari F550 Maranello. Possibly the first significant examples will be Rover's R40 replacement for its 600 and 800 series in 1999 and Lancia's K replacement in 2000.
Such 'intellectual' design is not easy, says Rover Design Director Geoff Upex. 'Some manufacturers, like the Japanese, are unable to apply retro design. You need a certain heritage. Even wood and leather should be applied with conviction,' he says. 'That's why these materials don't suit a Peugeot or a Fiat.'
Renault's Patrick Le Quement does not approve of retro. He says it represents 'a negative approach: It means looking at the past without having the culture to do so.'
Instead, he says, Renault 'has always created new, original kinds of vehicles. Our philosophy is to innovate whenever possible, and always to present a strong image.'
Retro has its enthusiasts. Italdesign President Giorgetto Giugiaro sees nothing wrong in 're-interpreting in a modern form the good things of the past.'
In the past, says Giugiaro, the evolution of production car design has been guided by production technology itself. 'The very rounded shapes of the 1950s and 1960s came not just from tradition, but from the limits imposed by the steels and stamping dies in use then,' he says.
In the 1970s low labor costs allowed wedge shapes that required a lot of welding, says Giugiaro, and in the 1980s the drag coefficient guided the design research. 'Now, I think we are in a very mature situation: We have the technologies to build almost everything we want. We designers have more freedom than in the past - even to look back to the good ideas of the golden years.'