By David Welch
Clay Dean's bosses at General Motors Corp (GM ). have lofty expectations--perhaps insanely so--for the new Chevrolet Malibu. The family sedan, which Dean spent three years designing, must compete with the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and is supposed to sell 20% better than its predecessor. Even Toyota Motor Corp. (TM )would be hard-pressed to hit that target.
With his bosses' anxiety levels off the charts, Dean--affable, goateed, 45-years-old--recently found himself at a factory in Fairfax, Kan., inspecting trim, doors, and body panels to make sure they were being manufactured to his specifications. The very next week, Dean was back in his bright, white studio north of Detroit working on that car's successor, which will appear in 2010.
GM is not the only car company being forced to step up its design game these days. They all are--even Toyota, which sees moving beyond vanilla as one of the best ways to keep such comers as Hyundai Motor Co. in the rearview mirror. But for GM, like its crosstown rivals, getting design right is a matter of survival.
As if the automaker doesn't have enough troubles, its accelerated efforts to design cars that people actually want comes at a moment when competition is the fiercest ever. More models are jockeying for drivers' attention than ever before; this year alone automakers are launching 56 new ones. Plus, most cars feature acceptable to excellent quality these days, so finding a way to differentiate yourself becomes all the more important. "There are so many choices out there that it almost feels like: 'How many different shades of white can you have?"' says Dean, who recently found himself feverishly sketching at home while watching the animated hit Cars with his five kids. "It's very stressful. But when you come up with the right design, it's awesome."
A few years ago, GM did just that with Cadillac. At the time, top brass were almost paralyzed by Caddy's angular new design; it looked nothing like the previous models. Would anyone buy it? Management plunged ahead only because they thought the brand would die without dynamiting the past. Now GM hopes to duplicate Caddy's success with Chevrolet and other brands.
Not since the heyday of the American automobile, when such legendary designers as Harley J. Earl created classics like the Corvette and tail-finned Cadillac, have GM designers been accorded so much freedom. GM hasn't formalized their authority as Toyota has, which made its design chief a managing director. Instead, vice-chairman and resident car guru Robert A. Lutz rewired GM's new-car works to unleash his designers' creativity (he calls it putting the lunatics in charge). Lutz theorizes that managers who are sufficiently courageous to take risks and free up designers "will get outstanding work from the same guys who did the bad stuff."
In the past, designing a GM vehicle went something like this: The engineers, marketers, and finance folks would devise a long list of specifications--everything from how much headroom the car would have to which materials would cut costs. Then they would present the list to the designers; one likens the experience to styling a brick.
Lutz has turned the process on its head. These days, design comes up with the vision. Then engineering and marketing take a whack at it, making their case for more interior space, more fuel-efficient aerodynamics, or body changes that might be cheaper to manufacture. Compromises are hammered out in regular meetings presided over by Lutz.
Understanding that the designers and engineers needed to start feeling each other's pain, GM has begun holding design workshops. At one meeting in November, design chief Ed Welburn demonstrated what clean, elegant design has done for the likes of Apple (AAPL ). Simple aesthetics, designers said, command higher prices and stronger sales for companies that sell basically the same thing as their rivals.
The designers also lectured on the classic proportions championed by Earl and others. They explained why pushing the wheels to the corners, for example, communicates strength and athleticism much the same way that pillars at each corner of a building telegraph stability. They suggested that a long, sweeping hood lights the fires of desire inside consumers. "It went a whole lot deeper than, 'We want bigger wheels,'" says Welburn.
The engineers had plenty to say, as well. They taught the designers a thing or two about what still needs to happen for cars to achieve decent safety ratings. And they explained why that wacky concept car that looks so cool on paper would be a nightmare to engineer. Still, both sides, so long in conflict, say they feel freer to experiment. Mike Meloeny, chief engineer on the Malibu project, cites his bosses' willingness to accept delays if it means engineering a more beautiful car. "It was direction from upper management," he says, "that said engineers don't need to be so risk-averse."
Of course GM doesn't have Toyota's billions in development funds to take career-betting risks. Nor does it have the luxury of sending its designers on lengthy research trips to hang out with New York hipsters, as Toyota did recently, to help it concoct a new version of its youth-oriented Scion Xb. Finally, apart from its Cadillac luxury brand, GM can't command premium prices for its cars, certainly not for a family sedan.
So when designer Clay Dean sat down with his team to brainstorm the new Chevrolet Malibu three years ago, he knew he needed to find an inexpensive way to transcend its cheap price. To get there, his team looked at low-price consumer brands that use a dash of design flair to impart cachet. Among them: Panera Bread (PNRA ), JetBlue Airways, (JBLU ) and Target (TGT ). JetBlue offers a cheap flight, Dean notes, but gives all passengers leather seats and in-seat entertainment. Panera is just selling bread, but they give it to you in tony shops with rich wood. As for Target, well, it's the pioneer in cheap chic.
With budgets tight, Dean was forced to employ a few design tricks. For example, he wrapped the headlights around the edge of the car. That has the effect of making the front wheels look closer to the front than they really are and lends the Malibu classic proportions that people seem drawn to. Actually pushing the wheels farther forward would have cost millions in development and production costs. "We're fooling the eye," he confides. Dean was also looking for a rakish bulge in the hood to convey power. At the time, three different engineers said it couldn't be done, Dean says. But he pushed, and design made a few suggestions of their own. Finally the two sides made it work.
The new Malibu appears late this summer. The car isn't brashly aggressive (like the Chrysler 300), but Dean hopes its simplicity will showcase the stately grille, shapely hood, and a glimmer of classic proportions. "It's exactly what Chevy should be doing," says James N. Hall, who runs research firm AutoPacific. "The car looks more expensive than it is."
Of course, given GM's tarnished brand, the Malibu could always fail. What then? In truth, Dean is much more enthused about the 2010 model. This time, the design started with him. He already has nine concepts--and is getting plenty of cooperation from the engineering department.
Welch is the Detroit bureau chief for BusinessWeek.