Auto show demonstrates new U.S. design dominance

By Contributing Writer

by: Brandon Smith, contributing writer

My mother says some of the first words out of my mouth were, “I like those wheels,” pointing to the chrome hubcaps and whitewalls on my father’s 1970 Buick LeSabre. The sleek gold sedan, yacht-long with a black vinyl top, would later become the car in which I learned to drive. I didn’t bother to borrow a car when I took Kelsey Fogt to the homecoming dance. Which was weird because the new Buicks coming out in the early 2000s were, well, they were for old people.

All that has changed.

The Chicago Auto Show, running until Feb. 20 at McCormick Place, fully realizes the recent tectonic shift in where good design is done. From the late ‘80s until a few years ago, foreign makers had largely cornered the market on good design. But this year’s auto show solidified my opinion: the former innovators’ hallmark design elements are now old hat. They’ve been recycled for so long with so few updates that I’ve begun to notice maybe they weren’t so wonderful in the first place. This includes Lexus, Acura, Mitsubishi, Kia, Subaru (no surprise), and Mercedes (ditto). In contrast, General Motors is moving into glorious new territory. I’m particularly enamored with the exteriors of the Buick brand—a make I thought should have been axed years ago. It has been resurrected.

According to Chris Ayotte, marketing manager for the Regal model and its stunning GS variant soon to hit production lines, 41 percent of all Regal buyers have never bought a Buick before—and likely never considered it. Nearly a third of buyers have an import in the garage or replaced it with the Regal. The product nearly sells itself without marketing. Not easy for a marketing manager to admit.

“Very round but not fat. That’s a hard trick to pull off,” says Dave Lyon, the man in charge of GM’s North American design, about the Regal. “There’s a little bit of hollowness. Kind of showing its ribs a bit.” That’s designer-speak for keeping some extra height under the doors.

So how did they do it? Critics were calling for the entire design team to be fired when GM hit the bottom of the barrel. But according to Lyon, Buick’s new models came from largely the same group that worked on the tired forms of a decade ago. This time around, he says, the entire company got behind the importance of putting design before engineering or statistics.

“We’d design a car and show it to management,” Lyon says. “They’d say, ‘does this have the most headroom in its class?’ And we’d say, ‘no, but it’s the prettiest.'”

Finally, the design geeks are winning these battles.

Of course, if you were to fork over the $11 admission to the auto show—or use any of the discount offers described on the show’s website—you wouldn’t contain yourself to Buick.

Volkswagen is getting plenty of hype lately, so you might be inclined to visit it. But most of that hype is coming from itself, I think. It’s true that VWs and Audis, in general, are fantastically reliable long-term. So if you want to be a responsible adult, or seem like a responsible adult, buy one. Used. But if you like panache, your only hopes are the sound system designed by Fender (yes, like the Stratocaster) in the newest models, and the plaid seatcloth in the Rabbit.

Toyota continues to blur the line between minivan, car, and crossover, as the length and height of the Sienna, Avalon, and Venza seem to creep toward each other over time. This is not necessarily bad in terms of aesthetics; it just makes for a boring lineup.

Toyota’s size convergence is just the most poignant example of a wider trend in design for the American market: big cars are getting smaller, but small cars are getting bigger. And this isn’t just confined to foreign makers. The Ford Focus, new for 2012, is a step away from its small-car roots. The past three model years have featured a slick rally-inspired workhorse, the SES trim level, that you or I could afford after a few years’ depreciation. The 2012 model has left the rally and hiked its sticker to near-luxury status. Its replacement in the segment, the Fiesta, doesn’t approach the SES’ cool factor. Many folks say the Fiesta is a great car overall—and I don’t begrudge them the opinion. But if exterior design weighs heavily on your decision, the Hyundai Elantra is a better alternative for 2012.

Automakers are finally serious about bringing electric cars to the market, with GM and Nissan releasing the Volt and Leaf, respectively, this year. But by GM’s own design, the spotlight is on the Volt at the Chicago Auto Show, as a small test track allows you to ride along in the whisper-quiet sedan while a happy-looking driver talks about the car. The user interface is the star here, with buttons that sense heat instead of push in—like a third-generation iPod. And you can exert a considerable amount of control over how the car charges via a website and mobile apps.

The future is now, and somehow, GM is at the vanguard.