A Green Light For Great Design

A lot of people didn't see it coming -- the return of the well-designed car. For years, Americans stressed comfort and luxury, Europeans found their strength in performance and quiet elegance, and Japan's automakers became legendary for offering economy, reliability, and excellent resale value. Globalization helped blend brands and images, but nobody strayed too far from their national roots.

Now a new, wide-open design competition is beginning. Detroit bigwigs are raiding Europe's best designers. Tokyo's automakers are plumbing the Japanese soul for what they call the "J-Factor," the mysterious something that blends the nation's heritage of simplicity with the mod look of urban Japan. And Europe is hiring design students from America's best design schools.

All of this, of course, is in a quest to sell more vehicles designed for looks and excitement than for what's under the hood. If the first evolutionary stage of automotive design was to make cars that worked, the second, postwar effort was to dominate with distinctive brands. And now it's the influence of global culture and social values on vehicles that's winning car buyers.

And that's O.K. Because despite slight differences in quality ratings, most vehicles sold in the developed world today have much higher reliability, quality, and longevity than ever before. Quality differences aren't very big anymore. The world's cars also use many of the same components and platforms. So to create a winner, auto makers seek to find a niche, from minis to SUVs to sedans to performance cars to funky surfer wagons. In the raging competition, it is the designer who often determines the outcome.

The good news is that the eternal conflict between good design and good engineering is much diminished. Take environmentally friendly cars. As European, Japanese, and American car makers get pushed toward turning out hybrid and green machines, the smart designers will be the ones who can create a look that sells fuel-efficient as well as beautiful or brassy vehicles. Environmental design for autos may be extremely important for European and Asian manufacturers in years to come. Europe already has been a pioneer in designing cars that are more easily recycled than Detroit's. And Japan has been a pioneer in hybrid engines that save on energy.

In the future, designers may take these advances a step further and turn out "green" cars that have great visual appeal to customers -- the new superminis on Paris streets are a good example. Look ahead to hydrogen cars, says Dale Harrow, head of the Vehicle Design Dept. at London's Royal College of Art, and there's no telling what creativity will come out of design studios, from repackaged interiors to exclusive vehicle creations. A new era may be dawning.

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