Decoding Design

Will small cars with big style seduce U.S. drivers?

Will small cars with big style seduce U.S. drivers?

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Designers at American automakers are increasingly paying attention to global aesthetic trends. Has the time come to lure U.S. drivers used to big vehicles toward tinier, more stylish ones?

For Americans used to driving on sprawling freeways in hulking SUVs, seeing zippy petite autos slip through skinny side streets in old European cities can be a charming and curious sight. And the experience of navigating vehicles through, say, an expansive U.S. suburb is, without a doubt, very different from swerving on cobblestones between centuries-old structures in an E.U. metropolis. Scale aside, do Americans and Europeans simply have different auto-design tastes? Or is our era of eco-consciousness and increasingly urban lifestyles about the change that?

As the Paris Motor Show, a barometer of the car-design zeitgeist, approaches later this month, it's clear that makers of small autos in Europe are revving up their style quotient. And some observers believe automakers will soon bet that new generations of American drivers will gravitate toward sexy, sporty small cars, too. (I wonder if the fact that Millenials will not remember the gas-guzzling, boat-like sedans and station wagons that some of us grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s might also affect their choices.) In the design-focused piece "Small Cars are Changing; Will They Fit in the U.S.?" the New York Times writer Phil Patton looks at the trend of more colorful, more style-conscious, and more city-friendly compact offerings to come. And some that are already on the market.

He writes,

"...gone are the low-price gray boxes and blobs that characterized the design of many cheap small cars of the past. Following the retro path of Mini or Fiat, other small cars offer more color choices. Body-color paint extends inside to doors and dashboards now, and the hues are more daring.

Do you want pink or mocha latte? The Chevrolet Spark and Fiat 500 have them. And smaller cars have more charm...Small cars are changing, the better to stimulate desire among young drivers. Some are promoted as city cars, as automakers study population trends and take aim at urban buyers."

In other words, cars are now getting cooler as they get smaller. Reading this made me think that such auto design developments echo trends in our other consumer technologies: smartphones get sleeker and tablets get slimmer as clunky relics like landlines and PCs begin to fade.

Patton predicts that American auto designers will pay attention to small-car trends set to be showcased in Paris in late September. These include

  • "Floating roofs," a design treatment in which a car's top is lighter than the rest of the auto, suggesting it's suspended in air, hovering like a cloud -- this will be seen in Audi's new A1 model.
  • Sculptural, voluptuous small-car bodies. Rounded, feminine silhouettes in the new Renault Clio and the new 2013 Opel Adam, which will make its debut at the Paris Motor Show and is pictured above, are meant to seduce potential buyers. (Although they won't be available in the U.S..)
  • Lots and lots of aesthetic options. Car makers are likely to offer large palettes of colors and wide choices of materials for small cars that will lead to "a million permutations" (that figure is used figuratively, I safely suspect! Wink, wink.)

Although Patton can't yet connect the dots between these forthcoming Paris Motor Show trends and any U.S. cars definitely set to hit the market in 2013, he does report on a larger design trend that backs up his points. He ends his piece by discussing how auto design strategy and research at American car companies is becoming more and more global. Design leaders at both Ford and General Motors are quoted as saying that they're paying attention to small-car preferences among young people in Europe, Asia, and the United States, collectively, and finding common tastes--and then, of course, playing to them.

Image: Opel

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure