At Gm, A Touch Of Le Style Francais

Anne Asensio's design flair helped bring Renault back. Will it play in Detroit?

Anne Asensio hasn't even started her new job as one of General Motors Corp.'s top car stylists, and already she's picking at design flaws. Smartly dressed in a beige Spanish designer suit and seated at an empty table in her soon-to-be-office at GM's technical center outside Detroit, she points dismissively to a screw visible just inches above a knob on the office door. Says Asensio: "This is functional, but it is bad design."

She might just as well be talking about some GM cars. In May, GM hired Asensio, 38, away from French carmaker Renault to help bring a bit of elan to the U.S. auto giant's products, which many consumers and industry-watchers have complained range from merely dull to downright ugly. Now, Asensio's new bosses want her to recapture the flair that GM flaunted in its heyday with such sculpted whimsies as the '51 Buick Le Sabre coupe and the '53 Corvette.

HIT DESIGNS. By choosing a Frenchwoman as one of its top designers, GM is making a bold move. But Asensio, who will become GM's director of corporate brand centers when she starts work in October, may be just what the lumbering GM needs to spice things up. One of five top designers at Renault, Asensio oversaw styling for the company's small and midsize cars. There she piled up one hit design after another and helped to revive the then-struggling Renault with designs of the hugely popular Megane Scenic minivan and the equally successful Clio subcompact and Twingo minicar.

Hitting such home runs for GM, though, will be a different matter. With its market share on a long, steady slide, and with a confusing mix of brands and models, GM presents Asensio with her toughest job assignment yet. For one thing, instead of being part of a team designing for a single brand at Renault, now she will be in charge of designing looks for GM's eight brands, including Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, and Oldsmobile. And she will have to do it in a huge corporation with layers of bureaucracy and a well-known penchant for cost-cutting at the expense of design. Asensio, though, figures trying to help fix GM cars is the opportunity of a lifetime. "It's a very big, very serious challenge," she says. "I will give it all of my energy."

It will take a lot. Although Asensio now holds the third-highest-ranked design job in the corporation, car designers at GM are lower down the food chain than they are at Renault. She is used to working in a company where styling has long been a top priority and where designers enjoyed a direct line to the top of the corporation. At GM, design often gets squelched by engineering and manufacturing. The chief designer, Wayne Cherry, has to go through several layers of management to get to the top. That's something Asensio worries about. "I hope things can change," she says. "I can't see how design can have too much influence."

Asensio also has to get a feel for divining American tastes. "In America, the priority is function and reliability. In Europe, cars are exciting. They have to please. It's about seduction," says Asensio. "I'll have to look at the cars in the American market and see where we need to move."

The good news for Asensio is that American consumers have shown a preference for European-looking cars. That, Cherry says, makes Asensio's recent arrival in the U.S. a plus. Says Cherry: "She doesn't have preconceived ideas of what these brands are." GM's top brass, moreover, well aware of the company's reputation for bland cars, is giving more attention to design than it has in years. In the past year alone, the department has hired some 220 new designers, many of whom will work under Asensio. That should give her more clout in bringing a new look and feel to GM cars.

If clout doesn't work, Asensio has some well-honed diplomatic skills to draw on. At Renault, she tussled with engineers, manufacturing bosses, and finance folks, all of whom, from her perspective, seemed to conspire against her and her team's creative ideas. While Asensio was working on the Scenic RX4 sport utility in the late 1990s, for instance, the engineers wanted to stick with what they were used to for cars: tilting the SUV forward, with the rear higher than the front. But Asensio fought to build the vehicle parallel to the ground for a more stable look. "They just wanted the car to run properly," Asensio says. "I wanted to make sure the car looked different."

To get her way, Asensio was unrelenting, but at the same time, charming and polite, engineers recall. Says Asensio: "I used to go to their place every day. They would say, `If you want that, you can have it,' just to make me go away." Says her former boss, Renault design chief Patrick Le Quement: "She can do a good cop and bad cop in one person."

FAMILY AFFAIR. Her crowning achievement was the concept car that eventually became the Scenic minivan--now a top-seller in Europe, with 29% of the market. The minivan, with its family overtones, was a departure for Renault: small enough to sip gas and navigate tight European roadways while managing to be roomy on the inside, thanks to its "cab forward" design.

Asensio had plenty of inspiration for the project, which kicked off in 1990: She was pregnant with her son, Antoine, when she got the assignment. "She was very committed to designing a family-oriented car," says Yves Debreil, who heads up luxury and midsize car development at Renault. She designed the middle seat in the back row, for example, to carry small children. The seat also slides forward, giving adults in the front easy reach to their kids. Although she wasn't quite able to finish the project before Antoine came, Asensio enlisted her husband, Renault designer Gerard Asensio, to provide the final touches. When the Scenic hit showrooms, it was a smash, and Asensio got the spotlight.

Asensio will certainly stand out in Detroit circles, and not just because of her talent. She couldn't be more different from her colleagues, most of whom are men who grew up sketching Corvettes on the back of their schoolwork. Her mother, who owns her own clothing business, imparted to Asensio an appreciation for fashion and art. At first it seemed as though Asensio might follow in her mother's footsteps. When she was 17, she took a job dressing mannequins in the window of a women's shop in Versailles. Says Asensio: "In the beginning, I wasn't very good."

After high school, she studied sculpture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But Asensio found herself constantly drawing mechanical objects, especially motorcycles, instead of sculpting. A year later, she transferred to the Ecole Nationale des Arts Appliques et Metiers to focus on industrial design. Starting out drawing furniture and mechanical objects, she moved on to cars, resulting in an internship at Renault.

"HOT PENCIL." Upon her graduation from university in 1986, Asensio got a big break when Renault, impressed with her work, paid her way to Motown's Center for Creative Studies (CCS), one of the auto industry's leading design schools. She got top grades on her drawing for a sleek Oldsmobile concept car and for a combined truck and horse trailer. She not only had a flair for automotive design but was also best in the class at drawing, her teachers and classmates recall. "She has a hot pencil," says Homer LaGassey, one of her professors in Detroit. Even more important, Asensio has her finger on the pulse of popular tastes. "A lot of guys can design cars," says LaGassey. "But she can sense out a winner."

When she finished her year at CCS, the school held its annual showcase of senior students' design work. And Asensio found herself facing eight job offers in two weeks. Both GM and France's Citron tried to recruit her. "She was in a very strong class," says Carl Olsen, who ran design at Citron but who has since moved to Detroit to become head of the school's design department. "But she was top of the pops." Asensio, however, feeling loyal to Renault, stuck with the company. When she got back to France, she met her future husband, Gerard, now 57, who was a project chief at the time.

Even though Asensio spurned GM's initial offer, the auto giant kept track of her quick ascent through the ranks at Renault. By the time GM headhunters made their latest overture to Asensio late last year, they were also eyeing several other Renault designers. But snaring Asensio was a coup. And for that, GM executives can thank the company's own design heritage, forged during two spectacular decades at mid-century by auto styling dean Harley Earl. Earl, credited with the stunning '50s and early '60s Cadillacs and the original Corvette, made GM a leader. Like many designers, Asensio idolizes those chrome-plated boats with their spiky tail fins and rocketlike taillights.

Can Asensio transform that nostalgia into contemporary cars that Americans want? She has spent nearly all her career in Europe, although she had a second stint in the U.S. in 1988, when she was assigned to work on the Junior Jeep, a joint project between the former Chrysler Corp. and Renault. The project, though pulled before going into production, was ahead of its time: a compact sport utility similar to Toyota Motor Corp.'s RAV4. Nearly every carmaker is now rushing the concept to market.

OLD OLDS. That's the sort of forward-looking work GM needs Asensio to deliver. If she can keep up her knack for hit cars at GM and successfully navigate through the bureaucracy, company insiders say she stands a shot of taking over as head of GM design within the next several years after Cherry, 63, retires. Asensio, though, plays down the notion. "To be a manager in design, you have to have a vision for the whole team," she says. "I think I should still learn about that. I'm still young."

Still, she is tough to match when it comes to drive and determination, former colleagues say. Le Quement, her ex-boss at Renault, is sorry to see her go. "She was just starting to come into her own," he says. "We made her a star with the Scenic." Now, Asensio needs to prove herself all over again with cool cars for GM. She could start by dusting off her Oldsmobile concept car from the 1980s. Her professors from school days say it's still a stunner. With a little sprucing up, it could even pass for a sexy contemporary car. And that's something GM could sorely use.

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