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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Car Design: NAIAS 2009 Roundup

This year's Detroit auto show was shaping up to be a giant gloomfest but the actual metal on the ground held some reason for hope, even if a number of big manufacturers like Nissan decided to take a pass entirely. Here were some of the highlights from the new introductions.

Ford Taurus (Production)

Ford is touting their new 2010 Taurus as the reincarnation of the 1986 Taurus that helped save the company and lead it to the top of the American car industry for several years. The comparison is overblown as the '86 model was a design breakthrough for a mainstream American sedan - the '10 is quite handsome but is no trendsetter.

The sculpted hood and fenders, thoughtful headlight styling, and strong side surfacing all give a look of quality and class. All of the detailing is meticulous in a way that often escapes American cars. The rear end is among the car's best aspects with a playful slash on the rear fenders suggesting a continuation of the strong fold in the doors and a sweeping downward accent that's echoed in the angle of the bumper seam and the taillights as well as the roof and window lines. The taillights themselves echo Ford's earlier Interceptor concept and are the signature filigree on this car.

The only real bum notes, and they are minor, are the fussy side window treatment that sees an awful lot of blacked-out space in the rear quarter window that leads to the leading edge of the chrome accent. If you squint it can nearly give a fastback cant to the roofline but that serves to make the front doors seem unusually small. The other is the grille - Ford deserves kudos for not doing a uniform approach to it's three-bar grille motif - this has a distinctive look separate from the newly upgraded Fusion. On the other hand there is an unmistakable echo of Subaru's Legacy in the grille forms and headlight relationship.

Though not drop-dead gorgeous (Chevy's year-old Malibu is still more arresting) this is a worthy entry into the competitive sedan market.

Chrysler 200C (Concept)
The whiff of desperation hangs heavy over Chrysler and their hodgepodge of jerry-rigged electric models on display were rather pathetic. And yet, this unexpected surprise was both welcome and poignant. Based on a cut-down 300C chassis, the 200C is the rear-wheel drive midsized car the awful Sebring should have been. Newly promoted chief designer Ralph Gillies has his imprint all over this car. Had this been a production model rather than a concept the hosannas would have been ringing loud and clear across Cobo Hall.

Unfortunately the situation is so dire that it's unlikely Chrysler will survive to even get this to the New York Auto Show, let alone production. Sadly, the tight fists at Chrysler's owner Cerberus, run by Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow, know next to nothing about the car industry and installed a guy at the head of Chrysler, Bob Nardelli, who knows even less. Of course why would Snow know anything about what makes for successful leadership? In the car world, it's about product, guys.

As for design the 200C is voluptuous, with rounded generous forms that never cross the line into flabby. The front wisely moves the Chrysler grille away from art deco and into the future, framing it with carved headlight cutouts that flow from the aggressive flared wheel openings.
The roofline is triumphant, echoing the gangster-like 300C but putting a completely different spin on it with a more distinct flow into the rear window and into the finely formed shoulder-line. That shoulder-line becomes a lip that runs through the taillights around the rear deck, which also gets a pinched spoiler that visually emerges from the bumper seam. Chrysler has said that they might be able to put this body on a front wheel drive platform, perhaps Nissan's Altima structure if rumor is to be believed. Let's hope they can pull it off.

Cadillac Converj (Concept)

Running on the plug-in electric underpinnings of the upcoming Chevy Volt, the atrociously spelled Converj suggests another way to find some profit in green technology. A luxury version of the platform could help offset the expense of building these hightech new cars.

From a design standpoint this is a further evolution of Cadillac's current language but for all the swoopiness and angular stance there is an anodyne quality to the exercise that makes it unexciting. The various tucked in slots at the front, rear, and sides feel a bit contrived, as does the exceptionally wide shoulderlines. The head and taillight treatments are very well done as is the shape of the side window glass. Expect a lot of changes if this gets the greenlight for production.

Audi Sportback (Concept)

The one new design that inspired outright lust at the Detroit show, Audi's Sportback concept previews an upcoming production model. In the name of all that is right in the world, Audi ought not to change a single centimeter of this entrant in the burgeoning 4-door coupe field.

It starts with Audi's signature brilliant headlamps flanking a superbly reformed version of their grille with radical inset vents that define the front bumper forms. Crisply folded forms travel over the sides, the lower one rising, the upper one undulating into the roofline and rear decklid.
The flow of rear window into trunklid is reminiscent of Aston-Martin but the kicked-up quarter windows and inset taillamps give the car a distinctive stance. In fact, only Aston's upcoming Rapide seems set to rival the Audi for looks in this class, and the Audi is likely to cost many thousands less. It's good to see Audi design back on track.

Lincoln Concept C (Concept)

Lincoln's Concept C is a fascinating look at how Lincoln design cues could play out on a car based on the small Ford Focus platform. The car is defined by it's sharp form separation into upper and lower body areas, emphasizing the unusual width. The clean simple detailing allows for a muscular and luxurious feel.
A third break is made by the color change of the roof panel, beginning at the pillars. This is one of the best examples of Lincoln's new front end look, which can look awkward in other applications. Now that Lincoln and Volvo (for now) are Ford's only premium players, could Lincoln be tapped to take on BMW's very successful Mini?


Anonymous said...

The Ford Taurus exterior styling looks like it is borrowed heavily from the 2009 Honda Accord EX.

Anonymous said...

And the 200C looks like a BMW 5.