Posts Tagged ‘Chevy Malibu’

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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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The Toyota Camry: Still the one to Beat

August 19, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

 

The Toyota executive was beaming.

He stood in the cavernous entrance hall at the New York Mets’ Citifield last August, in front of a glistening, redesigned, stylish Camry, the flagship of the company’s fleet and the nation’s best-selling mid-sized sedan. It had been a rough two years for Toyota and its personnel: lurid stories of runaway cars and stuck accelerators had eroded confidence in the company’s quality controls and the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami had caused thousands of deaths and seriously eroded the company’s manufacturing pipeline. Both events contributed to Toyota losing its hard fought status as the world’s biggest car company to a resurgent General Motors.

But the unveiling of the 2012 Camry was supposed to change that, to herald the start of a new, resurgent time for the Japanese car maker. With a flourish, the cover was whisked off the prototype model to appreciative nods from the automotive press.

And then, the Earth moved. Literally. And the walls shook. And the floor moved. And a panicky voice on the loudspeaker shouted: “This is an earthquake. Evacuate the building immediately!”

Toyota’s pre-launch media hoopla may have been lost in the aftermath of the major east coast earthquake which caused minor damage to buildings and major worries about the safety of American nuclear power plants. It was not the most auspicious introduction to the car that Toyota hoped would restore its luster as the one to beat in a field with strong competition from a resurgent Detroit and an upstart Korea. But as the car made its way to showrooms this year, it has proved to be as special as the company hoped it would.

“Toyota has done extraordinarily well,” said Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation for Kelly Blue Book. “For the first seven months of this year compact car sales were flat compared to last year with an increase of just 1.4%. But mid-sized cars accounted for 18.6% market share in June, a 44% increase year over year. The surge in mid-sized car sales can largely be attributed to the strength of the redesigned Toyota Camry, which posted more than 32,000 sales in June alone.

“The mid-sized segment traditionally has been dominated by Camry and the Honda Accord. When they are redesigned there are so many people out there who will only buy from Toyota or Honda. The Camry until now was conservative in terms of styling. For 2012, they didn’t stray too far in terms of design, but it was upgraded in terms of fuel economy and is competitive with compact cars. They didn’t increase the price much and there is the Toyota brand loyalty. Anyone considering a mid-sized car is going to consider Camry. It’s the long standing reputation they built in terms of Camry’s reliability and long term desirability that keeps it in the top position.”

According to a national survey by KBB, the 10 best-selling mid-sized cars from January through July of this year are:

 

Camry – Sales 243,800. Up 40% over 2011

Honda accord – 183,800. Up 18%

Nissan Altima, 183,700. Up 20%

Ford Fusion – 160,200. Up 6%

Chevy Malibu – 153,800. Up 8%

Hondai Sonata – 138,400. Up 2%

Kia Optima – 86,500. Up 99%

Chrysler 200 – 78,400. Up 105%

VW Passat – 64,100. Was not available

Subaru Outback – 63,300. Up 6%

 

Gutierrez added that “Toyota has played a large role in the nation’s auto market in general, and account for 18.5% of all car sales this year, compared to only 16% last year.” The company is still in third place, however, behind General Motors and Ford, who’s revamped Fusion may threaten Nissan and Honda for the Number 2 spot on the mid-sized list.

But for the foreseeable future, the Toyota Camry is still the one to beat.

            To start understanding the allure of the 2012 Camry, take a look at the outside styling. It is still a family sedan, but now has an aggressive-looking, low-scooped, front grill similar to that of its sporty, costlier Lexis IS 350. It is a distinct departure from the sedate, conservative appearance of previous generations of Camry, with a face that is more grimace than smile.

At a glance of its side profile, the Camry’s styling is not as eye-popping as that of the drawn-in-America Hyundai Sonata. But Toyota has definitely dropped the laid-back look and opted for a more flowing, artistic design which draws the eye approvingly from that charging face, over the wide wheel rims to a flare at the rear. It is not a car that is sitting on its laurels.

Under the hood, the Camry has a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to let the Camry run with the best of the highway pack. The engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline, but is thirstier than one might expect from a Toyota. The Camry’s EPA rating is just 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 MPG on the highway. And if you opt for the less expensive, 178-horsepower, four-cylinder engine the Camry has an EPA rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 MPG on the highway – which is about what you would get from a compact car like the Honda Civic.

If one is really looking to cut down on trips to the gas station, Camry has a hybrid edition carrying an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon in the stop and go city traffic, and 38 MPG on the highway. The Camry hybrid has a 2.5-liter gasoline engine producing just 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. But it is mated to a 105 kilowatt electric engine that gives the Hybrid power plant a combined rating of 200 horsepower.  The electric motor’s 199 pound-feet of torque added to that of the gas engine makes the Hybrid significantly more responsive and quick – in taking off or passing – than the standard Camry with the big gas engine.

There are, of course, tradeoffs when one buys a hybrid. The combined power plant adds about $2,000 or more to the price of the car, which can be partially offset by cutting back on the options. In addition, the hybrid’s regenerative braking system uses the heat generated by the brake pads to make more electricity. As a result, Toyota Hybrid owners avoid having a large brake repair job five or six years down the road. So it may be more productive to consider a full hybrid system such as this one as a performance enhancement with a higher upfront cost but reduced carrying costs and less stress on the average budget.

           

            Aside from the gas mileage the differences between the standard and the hybrid models are slight. The rear seats in the standard Camry can fold down, thus enlarging an already ample storage area. In the hybrid version, that middle area between the rear seat and the trunk, however, is occupied by the battery, so the trunk is a bit smaller and the seats do not fold down.

Inside, the Camry offers the type of real wood trim on the doors, center console and dash that is usually reserved for more upscale, full sized sedans. The seats are leather, power adjusted and can be heated in the regular Camry. And though one may opt for cloth covered seats in the hybrid for economic reasons, these, too, can be heated, which is a boon in cold weather climes or if you’re just plain tired.

For entertainment, the Camrys are now part of the Toyota/Lexus Entune system, which lets you set up your musical tastes and folders on your computer at home and these are instantly available in the vehicle.  They come with AM/FM and Sirius satellite HD radio for standard enjoyment over 10 JBL speakers. In addition, there is Bluetooth connectivity both for phone use and playing music. The system also has connections for iPods, MP3 players and USB drives. There is also a CD changer.

The system can be controlled via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel or through the seven-inch, color, touch screen, which also provides navigation and a crystal clear backup camera.

The fully loaded Camry will tap your wallet for $32,500, which is packing an awful lot into a well-designed package. It is not surprising that the Camry still sets the standard for all the rest.

 

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