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Automakers again driven by good design

Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images

H.W. Park, second from right, Hyundai's managing director and chief executive, and Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik, right, are seen as the Hyundai Elantra wins the 2012 North American Car of the Year award.

By Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor

Hyundai pulled off a coup earlier this week, besting such tough competitors as the 2012 Ford Focus and Volkswagen’s newly updated Passat to win the North American Car of the Year award.

While there were plenty of reasons behind the win by the new Hyundai Elantra, including a 40 mpg highway fuel economy rating, the car’s design “played a big part,” suggested John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America. Krafcik’s sentiments were confirmed by various members of the 50-juror panel that judges the award (a panel that, in the interest of full disclosure, includes this reporter).

In today’s hotly competitive automotive market, fuel economy has leapt to the top of the charts when it comes to factors that influence buyer decisions. But good design is also high on the chart and, according to research groups like J.D. Power and Associates, it may actually be more significant than it has been in years.

Good design is being credited with helping carmakers as diverse as Ford, Audi and Hyundai gain ground in an industry that’s just recovering from one of its worst recessions in decades.

“It’s the difference between a short-order cook and a great chef,” said Freeman Thomas, the head of advanced design for Ford.

Ford learned the hard way the role that design can play. Founder Henry Ford stubbornly kept the original Model T unchanged until well into the 1920s, two decades after it was launched, famously declaring customers could get the Tin Lizzie “in any color they want, as long as it’s black.”

Alfred P. Sloan, the determined new chairman of fast-growing General Motors saw an opportunity and offered an array of colors. He also hired Harley Earl, a coachbuilder by trade, to become GM -- and the industry’s -- first director of design, heading up what was originally known as GM’s “Art and Color Section.”

Earl introduced the idea of using sculpted clay models to develop and refine automotive designs and, in 1939, his renamed “Styling Division” rolled out the first true concept car, the Buick Y-Job, which was intended to both tease the public with a variety of advanced ideas -- such as a motorized convertible roof -- but also test the reaction of potential buyers to the Y-Job’s advanced styling.

That strategy continues today. A variety of concept cars, trucks and crossovers are now on display at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, including a prototype of the reborn Acura NSX, which will return to production in 2014, as well as a thinly-disguised version of the next-generation Honda Accord Coupe that’s due to roll into showrooms later this year.

The Accord targets the huge midsize passenger car segment, which generated more than 2 million unit sales last year. In decades past, buyers in the segment were “happy with plain vanilla” designs, according to Joe Phillippi, director of AutoTrends Consulting. “Not any longer.”

Toyota, long the gold standard of the midsize segment, took sharp criticism this year for its redesign of the 2012 Camry. Dealers who saw the sedan 18 months ahead of launch were so critical that the automaker struggled to tweak the styling before launch, though analysts and auto critics say it still lags behind cars from competitors such as Ford.

The U.S. carmaker recently introduced an all-new version of its Fusion sedan, which will go up against the Camry when it comes to market later this year. The Fusion has already won a significant endorsement of its own, honored as the Eyes on Design Production Car design award at the Detroit auto show by a panel of two dozen automotive stylists.

Design alone is a key reason why Rebecca Lindland, research chief for IHS Automotive, expects Camry sales to be flat in 2012 -- despite the carmaker only now ramping up production after last year’s quake-and-tsunami-related shortages. On the other hand, she is betting that design “could help the Fusion become the best-seller” in the midsize segment.

Coming up with a winning design isn’t always easy. Stylists have to work around the basic “architecture,” or platform of a vehicle, which may severely restrict where they can place a windshield, or “A pillar” -- the first pillar in the passenger compartment, which usually surrounds the windscreen.

Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images

Upscale sedans, electric vehicles and old-school muscle cars make their debuts at the 2012 North American International Auto show.

And aerodynamics have become an essential element in the development of new products, with even the slightest detail able to have a measurable impact on what is known as the co-efficient of drag -- which ultimately translates into fuel economy. Wind tunnel testing has become a critical test for every new car design.

So, today, any good designer “has aerodynamic solutions in mind” the moment he or she begins work on a new project, according to veteran GM designer John Cafaro. The good news is that, by using digital design tools, he, his colleagues and competitors can find a surprising number of ways to free up their designs while still delivering good aerodynamics.

The battle for design leadership may be most apparent on the flood of an auto show, but some of the nastiest skirmishes are taking place behind the scenes. Manufacturers are, with increasing regularity, raiding each other’s studios for talent. 

Kia, which has been building a reputation for strikingly simple bends of sheet metal, kick-started its styling program several years ago by hiring away Audi’s Peter Schreyer, recently named Man of the Year by Automobile Magazine. 

Then, just a few weeks ago, Kia’s sibling Hyundai brand nabbed BMW’s Chris Chapman, who will now have to take the Korean carmaker beyond the breakthrough look it introduced with the Elantra and earlier Sonata sedan.

As designers are all too well aware, you’re only as good as your latest design. And the leader today could be a laggard tomorrow.

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