LONDON - Outrageous designs that automakers would never have dreamed of putting into production a few years ago are now finding their way into European showrooms - and they are selling, too.
Common platforms and new material technologies make daring designs feasible. And the need to stand out in a crowd makes them necessary, say industry experts.
'I don't think there has been a time when manufacturers across the industry have allowed so much freedom for car designers,' said Karl Ludvigsen, automotive analyst at Ludvigsen Associates in London.
'Now the major manufacturers have filled in the gaps across the market and the quality of the products is almost completely balanced, design has become the most important thing.'
It's the Europeans who have emerged at the forefront of new design. 'These new cars show the innovative spirit is alive and well,' said Ludvigsen.
Volkswagen's New Beetle has been a huge success in the USA and Audi is piling up orders for the TT. Fiat has launched the Multipla, its peculiar-looking small MPV, and Renault plans to enter the luxury market with the futuristic Avantime, closely based on the concept car of the same name which debuted last March in Geneva.
DaimlerChrysler's Smart and the coupe version of BMW's Z3 are two more curiosity cars - shapes so far out of the mainstream that no major automaker would have considered building them 10 years ago.
Automakers can increasingly afford to take such risks because niche cars are cheaply and easily derived from platforms used to make hundreds of thousands of units, like the New Beetle's Golf platform.
But what has yet to be determined is the effect that these bold designs will have on the consumers' image of automakers in the long run.
'In the short term, most models with a very bold design and personality are quite safe because none of them are going to have more than a limited market share,' said Phillip Wade, managing director of automotive consultancy Harbour Wade Brown, and former head of marketing at Jaguar. 'But customers in the long run go for purity of design. Certain visual cues can give a car initial appeal, but if the design isn't pure, it will fade within a couple of years.'
He added: 'In the end it's down to design integrity. Consumers recognize a good thing when they see it. The thing that differentiates new vehicles from one another is the extent of truth that they achieve. That is what appeals to people, rather than something that's purely an outrageous statement.'
Jez Frampton, a director at branding specialist Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, said: 'Consumers are tending to vote for something a bit different and there are an awful lot of people who want to stand out. The danger with designing niche cars that stand out is that people have become quite knowledgeable as to what is good and bad design.'
No mainstream car in recent years has been so radically designed as the Fiat Multipla. Richard Gadeselli, head of corporate affairs at Fiat UK, said the car was designed to get a strong reaction from potential customers.
'The shape does tend to polarize opinion, but that's what we wanted to do,' Gadeselli said at an exhibition of the Multipla at the London Design Museum. Roberto Giolito, director of exterior design at Fiat Centro Stile, said the Multipla appeals to consumers who wouldn't normally consider buying an MPV.
Automakers say bold designs are often created for a young market, although Ken Greenley, director of vehicle design at the Royal College of Design in London, said this strategy may not always succeed.
'The industry is always pretending that it is playing to a youth market, but I'm not sure that young people want to have style forced upon them,' Greenley said.
'With a bold design, you can always get people into the showroom to look at the car, but whether or not they'll actually buy it is questionable. And if the style
doesn't last, it can be an embarrassing situation for the company.'
Ian Callum, Jaguar's new design chief and stylist of the Aston Martin DB7, said Renault and Fiat are taking bigger risks than other companies because the Avantime and Multipla are being launched into markets in which consumers tend to be more conservative.
Callum said radically designed vehicles have traditionally been confined to the small and sports-car markets, where consumers have been eager to accept more idiosyncratic designs.
'What's interesting about the Avantime is that Renault is aiming for the luxury market, and I've got a feeling that the luxury market is not going to be as receptive to very bold design as other sectors,' Callum said.
Greenley agreed that the luxury market may not be ready for big change: 'The problem with extreme designs, especially in the luxury category, is that there's going to be a very limited number of people who will actually buy the car. In that prestige market, you are immediately linked to business culture. And in corporate land, people will continue to want to arrive at meetings in a Mercedes or a Jaguar.'
Callum said companies like BMW and Jaguar, whose design is deeply rooted in their heritage, would have trouble succeeding with cars that stretch the limits of design because they would be perceived as abandoning their core strength.
But for a company like Renault, which has failed to make any real impact in the executive class with the conservative Safrane, a radical new approach to the segment with the Avantime was perceived to be the only alternative. Such a move would not work for BMW or Mercedes-Benz - but, according to Callum, it is too early to dismiss the Avantime.
'The French may just get away with it,' he said.