Detroit Designs: Picks and Pans

January 15, 2008
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At the North American International Auto Show there's a bewildering number of new designs — including quite a mix of production premieres, production-bound 'concept' prototypes, and even a few unhindered, let-the-designers-loose concepts.

To our untrained eyes, it's often hard to judge them at first glance, especially amidst all the bright lights and auto-show hype. We can separate the hits from the duds with our gut feelings — and by asking whether a concept fits its purpose and has nice proportions — but to get a better sense of which new designs are hits and which may be misses, we checked in with Imre Molnar, the dean of the College for Creative Studies (CCS), which has one of the top automotive design programs in the country and is based in Detroit.

“The principal theme this year has been sustainable transportation and environmental concern,” said Molnar without hesitation, explaining that the industry is already being affected by a number of concerns, including new fuel efficiency regulations that were recently approved. “It's very encouraging to see them put green so high in designers' thinking.”

Chrysler introduced three new concepts, all using under-development plug-in hybrid technology but each with a different 'range extending' powertrain element. Molnar said that the Dodge ZEO and Chrysler ecoVoyager concepts were hits. The ecoVoyager he described as “attractive and compelling,” while the ZEO is, he said, “unusually angular for a sporty car,” but a clear evolution of the previous Bee concept. The design of the Jeep Renegade concept wasn't quite as refined, he said, but still good.

Purely from the standpoint of shapes, surfaces, and proportions, Molnar chose the fast-looking Mazda Furai as his favorite from the show. The latest in a series of concepts that develop Mazda's future design direction, under the supervision of Lawrence van den Acker, the general manager of Mazda's design division, the Furai is more abstract than the thinly veiled, production-bound prototypes now commonly called concept cars.

“Mazda's doing flamboyant expressions of the brand rather than focusing on practical design exercises,” said Molnar, and he's excited to see what will come of it. The cars, he said, are “extremely adventurous and very sophisticated.” The Furai, he says, is “a true concept car, with wild, pret-a-porte styling that's audacious and very thought-provoking, with a good 'wow' factor.”

Another one of Molnar's picks, though for purity of purpose and straightforward appeal more than for the appeal of its sheetmetal, is the Toyota A-Bat, a small, car-based Toyota pickup concept with an frugal hybrid powertrain. “It's the most exciting concept, with regards to 'it has to be made,'” said Molnar.

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On the other hand, Molnar was disappointed with the production-bound Fisker Karma, the 100-mpg plug-in hybrid luxury sedan shown publicly for the first time at Detroit. Molnar commended Fisker's design work at Aston Martin and BMW, but said that the Karma's proportions and surfaces just don't work well from a design standpoint.

Noteworthy, but neither a hit nor a miss, is the Ford Explorer America concept. It follows a very purposeful, boxy shape, albeit with rounded edges, according to Molnar, and it's a further evolution of the memorably named Synus concept from 2005. The new concept manages to make ordinary sheetmetal look more sturdy, like billet material, just by the form taken by its surfaces, Molnar said.

Molnar also likes the design of Volkswagen's Passat CC, even though it's a completely different approach. “It has a very organic, biological form,” said Molnar, adding that the design owes a lot to the trends started with Chris Bangle and his BMW concepts from earlier this decade, with curves that look like they're derived from nature. “The CC has very sophisticated surface forms,” he said.

Why the wide range in design today, both in terms of up-close details and the shape of sheetmetal? Up until the last three years or so, according to Molnar, you could relate the way things looked to the manufacturing technology of the time. But with the widespread use of the five-axis CNC mill, times have changed and recent designs have been able to allow any combination of organic surfaces with creases and sharper edges. “Now the technology can give us any shape,” said Molnar.

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