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In past decades, when U.S. car buyers were the main market for automobiles, car makers could develop designs that appealed to an American aesthetic: tailfins, boxy SUVs, and aerodynamic sedan shapes, with little concern for fuel economy. But today’s market reaches far beyond U.S. borders, which is prompting a change in the way American automakers think.

In particular, the designs are changing to meet the demands of an expanding, global market of varied consumers. General Motors recently introduced a new concept car, the Chevrolet Tru 140S, as an “affordable exotic” model that gets 40 miles per gallon. Another Chevrolet concept, Code 130R, takes elements from the BMW 1 Series, the 1960s Ford Anglia from Europe, and Japanese subcompact car models, in an attempt to appeal to anyone interested in any of these preceding models.

Even as it introduces these new concepts, GM hopes to come up with designs that will not fall quickly out of fashion. The Cadillac brand thus is available in a smaller sedan, the ATS, which aims to compete with the BMW 3 Series. The design of the ATS is not nearly as distinctive as the appearances of classic Cadillacs from the past, but its understated body style likely will age more gracefully, without requiring constant redesigns to keep up with fashion trends.

Ford goes further than looking to other companies for design inspiration. It has hired European designers to come up with many of its most successful recent models, including the Focus and the Fiesta. These small, quick, sporty cars appeal to the worldwide market. Chrysler’s new owner Fiat also has added Italian elements to make the U.S. brand appear more global in its design. In turn, the American brands are hoping that consumers worldwide will ask for cars “Imported from Detroit.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are U.S. car makers taking a different approach to design?
  2. How important is the country of origin for cars?

Source: Phil Patton, “Out of the Melting Pot and Into a Global Market,” The New York Times, January 13, 2012.