Archive for the ‘car styling’ Category

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Drawing for the Future and Putting Pizzazz in GM Cars

April 12, 2015
Ed Welburn - GM Global Design VP

Ed Welburn – GM’s Artist in Chief

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was as cool as ever.

A soft-spoken man with a quiet air, he moved through the centerpiece GM exhibit at the New York International Auto Show, barely glancing at the two showcase Cadillacs under wraps, which would be unveiled at a press preview in another hour. He would pause every now and then, look at the lighting, the angle of the cars and comment quietly to one of the many GM employees bustling around the exhibition hall.

Sometimes, Welburn would suggest a slight adjustment in the scene, the type of subtle shift one might expect from a trained artist. Other times, he’d drop a word of encouragement or appreciation to anxious staff. He walked alone, observant and confident, without the trailing entourage that usually accompanies top-level auto industry executives—particularly one who is playing such a key role in the resurrection of General Motors.

2015 Chevy Malibu

Family Friendly Chevy Malibu

These have been trying times for GM, which last year had to recall nearly 27 million domestic cars and trucks and another 3 million overseas because of a host of dangerous engineering defects. This is an important show for GM, which is showcasing some 80 cars and trucks in an effort to overcome the seemingly unending flow of bad news with a cavalcade of eye-catching, flashy vehicles capable of luring motorists and their checkbooks into showrooms. On the main floor of the Auto Show, which closes Sunday at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center, are world debuts of the Cadillac CT6, the Chevrolet Malibu, the urban-oriented Chevy Spark, and the heavy duty GMC Terrain. Then there are minor amendments to some of GM’s signature sports cars, notably the Camaro and Corvette, which are sleeker and faster than ever.

City-oriented Chevy Spark

City-oriented Chevy Spark

It’s also been a trying few years for Welburn, a trained sculptor, GM’s vice president of global design, and one of the highest ranking blacks in the auto industry.  Welburn, whose father owned an auto repair shop in Berwyn, Pa., literally grew up with the car industry and was mesmerized by the sweeping designs of the big-finned vehicles that hogged the roads in the ‘50s.

“Those cars took their design cues from the aircraft of that era,” he said, “which represented the top technology of the time.  We still take design cues from aircraft.”

The current edition of Cadillac CT6, for example, with its svelte shape and small, sharp angles, is reminiscent of the silhouette of the nation’s stealth fighters. So are the lines on the current generation of Camaro, which is on schedule to deliver its 500,000th model this month.

These mobile artworks are the products of Welburn’s design teams who collaborate via floor-to-ceiling virtual meeting rooms. His job has been to keep them stimulated and churning out new and bold ideas during a period of financial collapse and bankruptcy, followed by massive recalls due to safety issues. The difficulty is keeping the creative juices flowing with a disparate group of temperamental artists after the public acceptance of their art pieces have been compromised by the poor work of others.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Welburn with a sigh, walking slowly past the newest edition of the Malibu. “The key was to stay focused.

Staying Focused

Staying Focused

“When we went into bankruptcy there were people saying the company was doomed and all was lost.  I called the team together and said stay focused. This will pass. We will get through this and when we do, people will go to showrooms and ask what kind of car have you designed?

“And when they come, we have to be ready. We have to have the designs they want. And my teams focused on that.”

It wasn’t easy for Welburn to “stay focused” during the bankruptcy. He had taken a lot of pride in personally redesigning the Saturn line, from the extremely competitive SUV down to the Saturn Sky, a Barbie-doll of a roadster that was incredibly fine to look at but was short on interior technology. How well the line would have moved will never be known – GM killed the Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer lines as part of its restructuring.

Welburn Cruises in his '69 Camaro

Welburn Cruises in his ’69 Camaro

Without a pause, Welburn poured energy into fine tuning GM’s complete line, with emphasis on two of his personal favorites, the Camaro and Corvette. Welburn still drives a vintage Camaro.

Over the last two years, problems that surfaced with GM engineering – particularly the cover-up of faulty ignition switches – could have sent GM sales into a tailspin.  But the designs kept the cars afloat.

As the ignition crisis and the recalls accelerated, Welburn had another virtual group conference. “We had the same talk,” he said. “I told them to just stay focused on what we do best, and make sure we aren’t contributing to the difficulties the engineers have.

“We had to make our designs attractive to the public, and something the engineers could readily relate to because they, too, would be getting past these troubles.”

The designs kept coming and so did GM’s customers.

“GM took a marginal hit on sales in the short term,” said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst with Edmunds.com, the car shopping website. “But by and large GM weathered that blow really, really well. The truth is that they were unaffected in the long term. GM does a lot of things right, which is why they are the best-selling auto maker in the nation.

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

“Even amid all their recall woes they still sold 2.94 million units in 2014. That’s up from 2.79 million in 2013. Their design is the critical part of selling cars. Then there is performance and reliability.  Their design could have been compromised by faulty engineering. But when you have a manufacturer firing on all cylinders, as they are now, that is when they do shine.”

The importance of design in the reception of a car can’t be overstated.

“When you think about it,” said David Smedley, associate professor of art and coordinator of Howard University’s sculpture program, “the car is the largest form of sculpture that most Americans own. We don’t buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either: our self-esteem and identity is invested in them.”

And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to be more than just well-engineered. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.

“In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first,” Smedley said.  “They make a full-sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture programs.”

Welburn and his teams don’t just sit down and draw a car; they also have to predict the future. Automobiles begin as concepts, evolving into a drawing and then a full size clay model. But the process begins one year, and comes out two to four years later – when tastes, politics, fashion, and the nation’s economy may have changed radically. By the time an eye-catching design moves from the drawing board to the showroom, it may be outdated.

But right now, GM’s designs seem to be catching on.

 2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

“The Corvette operates in an interesting landscape all its own,” said Acevedo, the analyst. “It is the American answer to the foreign sports cars, at half the price. And it has a loyal following.”

“The Camaro is another story. It has had competition from the Ford Mustang and the other Pony Cars, and it perennially slugs it out with the Mustang. In 2014 Camaro came out on top, selling 86,297 while Mustang sold 79, 675. The Dodge Challenger was behind with 51,611. But this year is going in the opposite direction. In the first quarter there were 29,695 Mustangs sold while Camaro sold 17, 320.  And that’s a design issue.”

The Mustang, in keeping with its 50 year anniversary, came out with a new, powerful, popular edition.  Camaro, on the other hand, is in the fifth year of this edition and despite the various minor changes, is looking dated by comparison.

2015 Ford Mustang - Running on 400 Horses

2015 Ford Mustang – Running on 400 Horses

But the 2016 Camaro, to be introduced next month, has been completely redesigned and the market will determine if Welburn and his crew have been using their crayons effectively. Currently, their plant is closed for retooling, Acevedo said, which limits sales until the new edition begins rolling off the factory floor.

Design has also helped GM’s truck division, which has a 35.7% share of the nation’s market – just 1% less than industry-leading Ford. The Ford F-150 is actually the world’s best-selling vehicle.

Ford F-150 - Still #1

Ford F-150 – Still #1

“But it’s the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado that are doing very well against the F-150 and are keeping GM  near the top of the truck market,” said Acevedo. “Chevy in particular has taken a bite out of Ford’s market share. With trucks, buyers look first for utility, but after that, it’s the styling that counts. And the Silverado and Sierra have developed a very loyal base of buyers.”

2015 GMC Sierra HD All Terrain

2015 GMC Sierra – Still Trying

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Electric Flash: Green Cars are Getting Stylish

April 3, 2015
BMW i8

BMW i8 – Style and Eco-friendly

 By Roger Witherspoon

            A car doesn’t have to be dull and plodding to be green.

One wouldn’t know that from the proficient, but uninspiring plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles that crawled off the drawing boards of the major auto companies. But that seems about to change.

“We call ourselves the ultimate driving machine,” said Matt Russell of BMW North America. “Preserving that driving experience is everything to us. We sell to those who really love driving, and we needed a way to build a sports car that was also energy efficient.

“We needed a sports car that can go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top out at 155 miles an hour and has a fuel efficiency rating of 72 miles per gallon. And that’s the BMW i8.”

The i8, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, is a stealth fighter of a car built to flow through the air rather than punch through it. There are grooves in the body designed to channel onrushing air through a narrow opening in the rear, not unlike the combustion chamber of the average jet. The result, at high speed, is you ride on a cushion of air and hear nothing from the world outside.

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Not to be outdone Porsche has taken its Cayenne, the 150-miles per hour SUV, and retooled a plug-in hybrid version as a family-friendly companion to its hybrid Panamera sports car.

“It’s our feeling that electric motors are the wave of the future,” said Porsche spokesman Thomas Hagg. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet and the infrastructure and market aren’t ready for completely electric vehicles. But we feel it is certainly coming, so we have begun moving in that direction with the plug-in hybrid.  The Panamera proved that we can have an electric hybrid that meets the quality demands of Porsche in terms of performance and handling.

“But to really move our brand into the electric future we needed to develop a plug-in hybrid for the Cayenne, which is our best-selling model.”

The combined Porsche power plant was on display at the New York exhibit, which lasts till April 12, but is definitely not just for show. The Cayenne has a 95 horsepower electric motor combined with a 333 horsepower, three-liter V6 engine. One can drive the Cayenne about 20 miles on purely electric power – which is ample for many commutes – and the combined power plant gets about 50 miles per gallon.

While BMW and Porsche may have had the plug-in hybrid showstoppers, they were certainly not alone among auto makers who see an increasingly electric future. Ford’s popular Fusion has a plug-in electric model and Mitsubishi, which introduced a newly designed Outlander SUV, is also bringing out a part-electric hybrid version.

Mitsubishi iMiEV:

Mitsubishi iMiEV

The company tentatively entered the all-electric market with its iMiEV, an awkwardly named vehicle that most resembled an ostrich egg on wheels. It was comfortable and efficient. But cars are a form of sculpture defined by how they make a person stop, look, and feel when standing close and then sitting inside. For many families, it is the largest form of kinetic art they will buy. As art works, the iMiEV or BMW’s i3 would never draw a crowd.

Hence the change. “The Outlander plug-in hybrid,” said Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Don Swearingen, “is a bigger vehicle and clearly one that will appeal to more consumers than the fully electric ones with their more limited range.

“We actually developed it a few years ago and started selling it in Japan and then in Europe. The demand was so high that the plant that makes our batteries is at full capacity. We still are offering all electric cars, but our growth opportunity is in the plug-in space. I drive a fully electric car, but I live 40 miles from work. As long as I can charge each night and again at the office it works fine.  But if I want to make a longer trip, a decision has to be made as to what car to use.

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

“With the plug-in hybrid, all those considerations go away. We felt it important to offer a plug-in, five-passenger vehicle, which has 4-wheel drive capabilities and is a great opportunity for families. Since we were redesigning the Outlander, it made sense to design a version for the electric motor and batteries.”

While the regular Outlander is a seven passenger SUV, the hybrid version will seat five people, and the added space will be taken up by the battery pack. The Outlander will have two 60-horsepower electric motors – one assigned to each axle – as well as a 121-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The combination delivers about 44 miles per gallon.

Electric cars dominated American roadways for the first 20 years of the 20th Century, but quickly lost out to gasoline-powered vehicles which could go a lot further without worrying about a dead battery.

“Electric cars were initially the best sellers,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The assumption was that if there is going to be any widespread use of horseless carriages, electricity has a lot of advantages. You could start it easily and you didn’t need to shift any gears because of the torque characteristics of electric motors.

“In the 1890s people were making electric cars and steam-powered cars and then there was a newcomer in the lot – a smoky, noisy, dirty, internal combustion engine.  In those early days, it wasn’t clear what these things were good for.  If you lived in a city, public transportation was very good and the cities were very walkable.

“If you had a car, you used it to drive into the country at what was then considered the astonishing speeds of 15 miles per hour. But you couldn’t go far into the country because the roads were bad and there was no electricity and no place to recharge. The gas cars were much better suited to that use. By 1909 the electric car and steam car were both sold at the margins, and the market was dominated by cars powered by the internal combustion engine.”

The second coming of electric cars hasn’t changed that equation much.

“Right now,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, “electric vehicles are just three to five percent of the market, and the driving range is the biggest factor holding them back.

“Most people are used to a gas tank with 250 to 300 miles of driving range. But you can’t use an EV to go take a trip to see Grandma.  A lot of people view driving EVs like leaving the driveway with the gas empty light on and wondering how far they can go before the car stops.”

The technical fix to that anxiety was the plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

When Chevrolet came out with its 2011 Volt plug-in hybrid it stressed the fact that the compact could get more than 300 miles to a tank of gas. Having the electric motors directly on the axle provided instant torque, enabling the small car to take off like a turbocharged roadster.  The Volt definitively proved the concept of the plug-in hybrid, even if its looks didn’t wow the consumers.

Which is why Kia is banking on an all-electric version of its youth-oriented Soul, a car marketed with hip-hop hamsters to lure a younger generation to its environmentally friendly wheels.  Basketball star Lebron James may lure buyers into Kia showrooms to see their high-performing sports car, the K-900. But once they are in the showroom, Kia is banking on the Now Generation driving off in an urban-oriented Soul.

“We designed the electric and the gas versions at the same time, rather than take an existing car and modify it so you lose space to the batteries,” explained Hedrick. “The Soul will get 93 miles before you need to recharge, which is the best range in the electric car market except for the $80,000 Tesla, which costs three times as much.

“The Soul is our best-selling vehicle. It has a cool, funky design that is perfect for the urban buyer and it will be the cornerstone of our clean mobility program.”

And Kia’s hamsters will bounce merrily to the quieter beat.

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

 

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