Gleanings from 2006 NAIAS: more than just bright, shiny cars and trucks—concepts and production vehicles—the North American International Auto Show afforded the opportunity to learn some things about product development from industry leaders. Here’s some of what we gleaned …
THE NICHE APPROACH OF MAZDA
By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief
“We look at segments; we don’t do that much work with demographics because our products tend to stretch across the range of age groups,” observes Moray Callum, design chief for Mazda, who adds, “It’s usually the car enthusiasts within the segments, and car enthusiasts aren’t always in the same demographics. They’re 17 to 97.” So with that enthusiast brief in mind, Mazda designers go to work, developing vehicles that will appeal to those people, not to some fictitious persona. They don’t work alone, however. As Franz von Holzhausen, Mazda North American Operations’ director of Design, observes, “We have a process that brings design, marketing and product planning together as a team to develop concepts for our brand.” He explains that they look at a “positioning map,” one that shows different vehicle categories and where Mazda products ought to be located on that grid. He points out, for example, that the RX-8 was a product that is a result of having identified an open space on the map for a niche-type vehicle, so they developed it.
Another mechanism that is deployed for vehicle development at Mazda is called the “Triple A, or Annual Advanced Activity process,” which Callum describes as a gathering of different types of people from throughout the organization who get together and “come up with the new concepts that we feel will differentiate Mazda as a brand.” He emphasizes. “It’s specifically for new concepts.” One of which is the Kabura, which was designed by von Holzhausen, a designer who came to Mazda from General Motors, where he’d managed the design process for vehicles including the Pontiac Solstice (arguably one of the closest competitors to the Mazda MX-5–von Holzhausen, by his own admission, is a driving enthusiast, so it is no wonder that he worked on the Solstice … and was interested in working at Mazda).
ADDRESSING THE NICHE
One of the more interesting aspects of Mazda vis-a-vis many of the competitive brands in the market is that, according to Callum, they’ve developed the means by which they can do “reasonably small volumes”–and, yes, make money doing so. The sales goal for Mazda in North America for 2006 is 300,000 vehicles (which is a third of the number of F-Series trucks that Ford sold in North America in 2005). By having this small(er) volume capability and a clearly distinctive understanding of whom they are trying to appeal to with their designs (“We understand our customers because we are customers ourselves,” Callum says), the designers have the latitude to do something that others might envy: “We don’t always need to please the masses; we can do very edgy cars that some people might find to be too much for them,” Callum explains. Yet it should be noted that this is edginess with a purpose, edginess meant to meet the needs of the enthusiast cadre: “Enthusiasts like honesty in their cars.” Callum claims. “I think Mazdas are quite honest in that sense. We design cars that look like they are fun to drive–and they are fun to drive.”
All of that said, however, there is something that Mazda designers did that validated their vision to management (always a critical aspect for those who are endeavoring to do something outside the norm): they created the Mazda6, a car that made a remarkable statement in the market about what a midsize car could be when the production version was shown for the first time at the North American international Auto Show in 2002. “Since the introduction of the Mazda6,” Callum says, “I think design has gained the trust of management. They listen to us.” It probably helps that there is an apparent understanding of the mission to create cars and trucks that people–even if they’re not “enthusiasts”–can be enthusiastic about. The proportions, stance, design language can be left to the designers, not the suits.
A PROACTIVE APPROACH
Whereas some vehicle manufacturers tend to have designs that are seemingly reactive to the market, Callum thinks that being proactive can be a competitive advantage. While he, not surprisingly, thinks that Mazda is a proactive company, he cites, for example, BMW as a company that is proactive in its approach to vehicle design–“whether you like what they’ve done, or not.” BMW has staked a claim. In a world that is populated by more and more cars on a daily basis, carving out space is difficult. “We need to be recognized on the street as a slightly different brand,” Callum says. A less commoditized product. “We are getting more individual in our products, and we’re learning that individuality works.”
But it’s not all about the looks. As von Holzhausen points out, “There’s a balance between looking good and actually functioning. People are getting more and more demanding about what’s important to them. They’re spending more time in vehicles so they want more pieces, more technologies, more stuff.” Which can lead to a situation where there is interior overload or functionality which isn’t particularly functional in the context of those who actually have to use it. For example, think of all of the gauges, dials, buttons, knobs, and other man-machine interfaces that are now de rigueur on even entry-level cars. Callum suggests that there needs to be a clear recognition of what is actually required by the driver, not ancillary, distracting information. He says that while sports enthusiasts still like gauges–say the oil pressure gauge in the MX5 that actually fluctuates in use, doesn’t get pinned to a number as seems to be the case in many vehicles–for the daily driver, there aren’t a whole lot of necessary bits of information needed to commute from point A to B.
Callum even claims that for many people, vehicle hoods are simply “the most expensive bottle tops ever because the only people who open them up are those who put water in the window washer.” While he likes the appearance of engines (because of his confessed car enthusiasm) and dislikes engine covers (“usually there to hide the mess underneath”), he thinks that it is conceivable that cars could be developed “for people who just run them to the shops” that wouldn’t have a conventional hood. “What do they need to see the engine for? When’s the last time you opened the back of your laptop to look at the processor?”
THE TOYOTA APPROACH
By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief
Undoubtedly, from the point of view of Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), the most important vehicle debuted is the 2007 Camry. After all, in 2005–the last full year for that fifth-generation’s production–there were 431,703 Camrys sold in the U.S., which was actually up 1.4% compared to the previous year, when the car was younger. The Camry will not be denied, however, as ’05 sales put the car back on top of the best-selling vehicle list–for the fourth time in a row and for the eighth time in nine years.
The second-most important–or maybe it would be tied for first, given the status of the car in question–would be the Lexus LS 460. The last time that Lexus made such a startling introduction of a production vehicle at the North American International Auto Show was in 1989 (the first year the show gained its international moniker), when the division essentially revealed itself and showed the world the LS 400 sedan, a car that had the heads of many senior executives shaking in disbelief. (Lexus also introduced the third-generation of the product, LS 430, in Detroit in 2000.) Lexus has done pretty well for itself, to understate the case, as it sold 302,895 vehicles in the U.S. in 2005, up 5.5% from ’04, which means that it was the best-selling luxury car brand in the U.S. for six years running.
Another important vehicle for Toyota is the Yaris, a B-segment car. The importance of small cars in the U.S. market–something often overlooked by things at least mid-sized, if not much bigger–can be assessed by looking at the numbers for the Scion brand: there were 128,452 Scions sold in ’05; each of the three models showed year-to-year sales increases: 16.3% for the xA, 15.3% for the xB, and 166% for the tC.
Also shown in Detroit was a concept vehicle, the F3R, a hybrid–not surprising because with the cars and trucks it has equipped with hybrids. Toyota leads the market (and will gain more space between itself and the others with the hybrid version of the Camry)–and a minivan, a vehicle type that seems to be to transportation what flossing is to dental hygiene: something you’ve got to do (or have).
Much of the success that Toyota (and Lexus and Scion, too) is experiencing seems predicated on something that might not be expected: listening to the customer. Donald V. Esmond, TMS senior vp, Automotive Operations, says there are short-term and long-term issues that the company deals with. In the short-term, for example, it is one of observing what’s happening in the market and listening to what the dealers want. Then it is a matter of making sure they have the product for the end customer. That is, he says when gas prices go up, the SUV and truck sales go down and the Prius and Corolla demand grows. When the prices go down, then the trucks gain their luster and the cars continue to do OK. What makes close listening very important for Toyota: “We’re still running less than a 30-day supply of products, so it is that much more important to deliver the right product to the right dealer at the right time.”
Then there is the longer-term issue: “Coming up with the right product that maybe the customer doesn’t know he needs yet. That’s probably the bigger challenge, and one that our engineers do a pretty good job dealing with.” He cites, for example, the Prius, and admits that when the first-generation Prius went on sale in the U.S. as a model year 2000 model, “There weren’t waiting lines of people saying, ‘This is what I’ve been asking for all along.'”
Or, take the case of Scion. It first went on sale in just California in June, 2003, and had a staged rollout to the rest of the U.S. in the months following. According to Esmond, some 75% of Scion buyers are new to the Toyota brand, so while the sales numbers aren’t massive in a traditional sense (although if you look at the total sales and divide by the three models, the number is nearly 43,000 each, which is the sort of thing that people talk about when it comes to “niche” vehicles), there is hope that those who start with Scion will move through the ranks with time and life-stage changes.
In late ’06, a new Toyota manufacturing plant will open in San Antonio, TX. It will have an initial annual capacity of 200,000 units. It is for the production of the Tundra pickup truck, which will be a full-size model by anyone’s standards. One might think that given the unlikelihood of falling gas prices, the timing would be less than propitious. Esmond responds, “It’s still a huge market–the biggest market out there. Those customers aren’t going to be quick to give up some of their versatility and utility. Pickup trucks are going to be the only thing to meet their needs.” It’s worth noting that in ’05 Toyota sold a total 295,360 pickups–mid-size Tacomas and Tundras–while Chevy alone moved 769,166 full-sized pickups. There’s a lot of headroom for Toyota.
CHRYSLER’S CONCEPTS: DESIGN & MANUFACTURING ISSUES OF THE IMPERIAL & CHALLENGER
By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief & Christopher A. Sawyer, Executive Editor
WHY NO EGG CRATE?
Although Chrysler designers have been working hard the past several years to bring a family resemblance to the grilles, with the flying wings bold, prominent, and at the top, over an egg-crate air-inlet array beneath, that has been abandoned on the Imperial concept. No, the badge is still there, in fact accentuated, as it is ensconced in a massive rectangle (with rounded corners) of bright material that resembles silver more than the aluminum that it is. That large piece is balanced, in effect, with a smaller bit of bright work at the bottom of the grille assembly. But between the two, the egg crate has given way to a series of horizontal slats that are pulled pack toward the headlights slightly, picking up a line that bifurcates the car, starting with the lower fascia below the grille then up onto the top of the hood in the form of a molding that runs to the windshield. Simply stated, the grille doesn’t look like a typical Chrysler grille.
About which Trevor Creed, senior vp of Chrysler Group Design, says, “How could you have any precedence set that you could expect one thing or another. I’ve never done an Imperial before … so it is a brand new grille.” He explains that he’d seen a series of drawings of grilles, then spotted the one that appealed the most to him. Recalling the event, he remarks, “I said, ‘That’s the grille, that’s the one that’s really imposing, the one that says, ‘Hey, I’m the big brother to the 300C–move over.””
Although the Imperial is based on the LX platform–the underpinning for the 300, Magnum, and Charger–it is a stretched version: the wheelbase is 123 in., which is 17 in. longer. Still it is the sort of thing that is well within reason as regards putting it into production. It is not a total flight of creative design fancy. So, does this mean that if the showgoers who see the car go as ga-ga over it as they had over the 300 concept Chrysler will put the Imperial on the production line in the Brampton Assembly Plant along with its smaller brethren? (Or will they bring the other concept, the Dodge Challenger, to the line, which is actually shorter by 4 in. (116 in. wheel base) and wider by an inch compared with the other LX models, as it has front and rear track widths of 64 and 64. in., respectively?) Well, according to Tom LaSorda, Chrysler Group president and CEO, the answer to that question’s answer is probably “no” for the simple reason that given the popularity of the other LX models, the Brampton plant is full. Which means they’d have to figure out some other way of accommodating new vehicles within the company’s manufacturing footprint.
From a perceptual point of view–with a car that has more than hints of stately products like the Rolls-Royce–does the Imperial fit within LaSorda’s view of where Chrysler is positioned in the market, especially since Mercedes-Benz, which has the higher market pedigree, could use some LX-like success and probably doesn’t need another competitor? LaSorda says, “It is probably the highest end car we would ever consider” and describes it as “a bit of a stretch.” In terms of category, he remarks, “We’re staying kind of where we are. Premium is where we are. Our sister division Mercedes does an outstanding job on luxury. That’s their segment.”
Of course, cars like the Challenger are clearly Dodge’s segment. So, is there greater production potential there? “Quite frankly,” LaSorda admits, “we’re looking at that one pretty seriously.”
How seriously? Well, there seems to be a possibility that Chrysler will build the Challenger. Not in Brampton. But in the St. Louis South Assembly Plant. In December 2005 the company announced an investment of as much as $1-billion in the St. Louis North and St. Louis South plants. At the latter they are presently producing minivans. The investment is meant to provide flexibility: the ability to produce multiple vehicles off of more than one platform, including front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles. Beyond the Challenger, Frank Klegon, executive v. p., Product Development, Chrysler Group, says that the transformation of St. Louis and other plants within the system will allow the vehicle manufacturer to deal with cyclical demands. “What tends to be cyclical now is not the total industry volume as much as the cycles and movement between different kinds of vehicles in the marketplace,” he says. “We have to be able to react to those changes without building new infrastructure and a new plant.” So if pony cars become popular …
So how flexible will Chrysler be? According to Frank Ewasyshyn, executive v.p., Manufacturing, Chrysler Group, “As long as we maintain some basic rules, the only restriction we face is whether a vehicle has a compatible assembly sequence and fits through the process envelope.” And they are paying careful attention to sequence and size. He says that Chrysler’s flex plans are built around a lot size of one, and that all of the production processes and tooling are set up to go from model to model. In what could be described as a flight of manufacturing fancy. Ewasyshyn claims, “If I can build a chassis rail, why can’t I build a toolbox, bucket, metal desk, or whatever else I want as long as it uses the same type of processes in reasonably the same order and I have enough of an envelope to move the part?” Presumably, they’re not going to be making boxes and buckets. The Challenger, however …
BACK TO DESIGN
One evident aspect of the design of the Challenger is that it has two doors. One of the things that some passionate partisans took exception to on the design of the current Dodge Charger is that it, unlike its forerunners, has four. The purpose of the two additional doors on the Charger is to add functionality. And back in late ’04 and ’05 when Trevor Creed talked about those doors, he says that there had been misquotations and misunderstandings vis-a-vis his stance on the death of the two-door models for Chrysler Group. When asked about the number of doors on the Challenger, he first points out that it is “not a coupe,” but, rather “a two-door hardtop,” and then goes on to state, “Two doors are OK for anything.” He explains, however, “There’s definitely a market for two-door cars, but the question is at what point, at which segment, do you put it, and what are your expectations in terms of sale-ability. I think if you have modest expectations, you’ll probably be OK.”
NISSAN: REFINING DESIGN, TAKING AIM AT THE ENTRY LEVEL
By Christopher A. Sawyer, Executive Editor
The Sentra is the car that completes the first round of Nissan’s design revival, which restarts with the introduction of the revised 2007 Altima sedan in mid-’06. Unlike the Altima and Maxima, the Sentra was designed in California. “We did the Sentra from start to finish in the U.S.,” says Shiro Nakamura, senior v.p., Design Director, Nissan. “There was no involvement from Japan, except for my oversight.” It was not an easy birth, however, since the car reportedly went back to the designers after the original was found lacking in consumer clinics. Some-where along the way, the “conversation” had broken down.
“The design process is like a conversation,” says Nakamura. “We make a first proposal with preliminary packaging information to get something on paper quickly, and then take the more accurate information as it becomes available.” Nakamura’s designers may ask for alterations to the overhangs, track or other dimensions–“It’s not as though they give us the packaging and say, ‘do it’,” he says–a process that may take as many as six months before the final layout is set. “Then it takes another 12 months to freeze the design, and there are no major changes at the end of that 18-month design cycle.” There may be alterations made based on the clinic results, he remarks, “but that’s the extent of the changes we are willing to make. Unless the car does not clinic well, has a quality or some other outside problem, there are no changes once the design is set. None.” It’s a discipline Nissan Design has to follow if the 10 to 12 projects heading toward production each year are to reach the market on time. “Over the six years we have introduced these many models,” Nakamura says, “the process has become even more precise. Otherwise you waste the energy and money you hoped to save. You have to be very efficient. The freeze is the freeze.”
FOLLOW THE URGE
Carlos Ghosn proved the seriousness of the Urge project when he said, “Are we interested in a relatively affordable sports car at Nissan? Yes.” Reportedly, firms specializing in low-volume production are being asked to bid on developing the Urge while working in tandem with the Nissan Technical Center in Farmington Hills, MI. It’s highly unlikely the production version will have the concept’s built-in Xbox 360 that uses the steering wheel and pedals as game controls, but the rest of the vehicle points to the car Nissan wants to produce: an affordable front-engine/rear-drive lightweight minimalist sports car (target weight is 2,400 lb.) for first-time buyers. A decision is set for the third quarter of 2006 with production slated for 2009.
INFINITI’S NEW ENTRY
Just as the new Sentra signals the end of Nissan’s first design cycle since its much-publicized revival, the G Concept marks the start of Infiniti’s next rotation. More driver oriented than its predecessor, the next G increases the separation between Nissan and Infiniti vehicles and originates from the Nissan Technical Center in Atsugi, Japan, whereas the current production G Coupe began as a design concept in California. Says Nakamura: “The interior of an Infiniti is much more of a cockpit than a Nissan, which has more open space and more of an expression of spaciousness. The Infiniti also is more ‘authentic’ in its shapes, while Nissan is more geometric.” Though it’s possible to discern similarities between today’s Nissan and Infiniti interiors, the next round will increase the separation between the brands by using unique gauge clusters, switchgear, and steering wheels. “There will be more similarity and carryover within brands, but not between them,” says Nakamura.
COMMENTS ON CREATING THE CAMARO CONCEPT
By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief
A design transformation is occurring at General Motors.
Perhaps driven by the success of fresh products in the Cadillac lineup as well as the Pontiac Solstice, GM is moving with fresh, forward-looking designs, including what could have been a retro car, but is anything but: the ’06 Camaro concept. We talk with Ed Welburn, GM vice president, Global Design, for insights on what he and his staff are up to and how they’re doing it …
ON GOING BEYOND THE FIRST GENERATION VEHICLE AND STRETCHING TO GET TO THE CAMARO CONCEPT.
“From the very beginning of the project, I said to the guys–and they got tired of hearing it from me–‘The car has got to get its inspiration from that first-gen Camaro, not the second gen or the third, but the first, but it has to be a very new vehicle. We don’t want go the route the others have, we have to move this vehicle further.’ There were versions during the development that were close to the first-generation car–wonderful-looking designs, but I wanted more reach. I wanted it to have a newer form vocabulary, the proportions needed to be a bit fresher, there needed to be a bit more gesture in the design.”
“They landed on the basic design very quickly. But it almost looked like someone took an existing car and enhanced it. I wanted them to make my own, personal ’69 Camaro look old. In fact, it was around during the development.”
Comment: Notice the importance of the physical object in terms of showing what the designers needed to move beyond.
CREATING A CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT TO GET IT RIGHT.
“We had a competition between two teams. Every time we have a competition, the bar just raises higher. The work that comes out of that is great. Each team worked separately. Then we brought them together on the design patio, brought the comparison cars out, reviewed them, then went back.”
Comment: Competition and iteration. Key for moving beyond initial solutions to problems.
WHAT HE TOLD THEM.
“Dial in more reach. Get more reach. You guys have the spirit of Camaro. Get more reach in it. I knew when we didn’t have it.”
Comment: How many managers are like Welburn as regards encouraging them to go further?
ON DECIDING ON THE CAR THAT WAS INTRODUCED AS THE CAMARO CONCEPT.
“It was maybe the most difficult decision I’ve had to make since I’ve been vice president of Design. Two wonderful cars were sitting there. I know we picked the right one. The reaction has been great. The other one was very good, as well. It may have been a little closer to the original. The one we picked had more reach.”
Comment: Notice the consistency of promoting reach. Presumably this will find its way into future vehicles as well.
Say the car gets the green light for production. Will it look like the concept or a vanilla, or watered-down, version?
“I don’t like vanilla. You won’t see vanilla. Vanilla is for cappuccinos, that’s it.
“There was a lot of thought put into the development of this concept. We knew, I knew, it was going to get a good reaction. We certainly wouldn’t want to get that good reaction and then disappoint people with a vehicle that didn’t measure up. What we would do for production–if we were going to do a production car–would be very much like you see.”
Comment: While concept cars often have little similarity to what gets manufactured. Welburn says that they paid attention to engineering and manufacturing issues when developing the model. He stated: “The absolute best vehicles are the ones where design and engineering work in collaboration as true partners.”
WHEN AN ICON BECOMES A STATEMENT.
“It’s a lot more than that car. It’s a statement about General Motors and General Motors Design. Yes it is the Camaro, and people love the Camaro, and to nail it with that design is a big deal. But it does say something about the company, the company that put the faith in me and my team to develop this vehicle, to give us the approval to go ahead. If you miss, if you disappointed people, if you brought those classic, iconic Camaros driving through here* and the new concept comes out and isn’t as good … There is some risk. You’ve got to take risks.” [* Camaro club owners drove their vehicles in Cobo Center prior to the unveiling of the concept.]
Comment: Welburn is conscious of the importance of the Camaro in terms of positioning GM. At a time when there is a need for desirable cars in the market, the design staff plays a key role in helping fulfill that desire.
CONCEPTUALLY SPEAKING: A LOOK AT WHAT’S LIKELY TO COME
by Kevin M. Kelly, Senior Editor
Volvo C30 Concept
WHAT IT IS: Volvo’s First ever entry into the C-segment class slated to hit European showrooms late this year and arrive in the U.S. in early 2007.
CLEVER FEATURES: Riding on the C1-platform shared with the European Ford Focus, Volvo S40 and Mazda3, the C30 is powered by an in-line 5-cylinder 2.4-liter turbocharged engine which delivers 260 hp at 5,500 rmp along with a 6-speed manual transmission, both of which help move the C30 from 0-60 mph in 6 seconds.
IMPLICATIONS: The sporty two-door, four seater–the first vehicle to debut under the direction of Volvo’s new design boss Steve Mattin–Features styling cues taken from the 2001 Volvo Safety Concept Car, including the glass tailgate and tail lamp design. Inside the C30 Features Volvo’s signature floating center stack, while rear seat occupants are coddled in two individual rear seats. Could this expressive Volvo give Mini a run for its money?
Ford Reflex Concept
WHAT IT IS: Ford’s attempt to bring American styling to the compact vehicle segment.
CLEVER FEATURES: While the exterior of the Reflex is a clear departure From Ford’s European-inspired design theme, it’s the interior that makes waves thanks to its mesh seat coverings and “love seat” in the rear passenger compartment that can be configured to accommodate either two children or one adult via a divider bar that rises through the seat bottom dividing the mesh fabric from one seat into two. The Reflex is powered by a 1.4-liter Duratorq diesel-electric hybrid powertrain system capable of achieving 65 mpg. The hybrid system includes a new-generation lithium-ion battery pack with solar panels integrated into the headlamps and tail lamps to recharge the battery system. Ground rubber scrap from athletic shoes is used for insulation and improved noise and vibration characteristics.
IMPLICATIONS: Providing a vision of where Ford plans to take its compact vehicle design in the near future, the Reflex could shake-up a segment that domestics have left behind.
Ford F-250 Super Chief Concept
WHAT IT IS: A behemoth full-size truck that incorporates signature American design with luxury.
CLEVER FEATURES: The Super Chief is the First vehicle to feature Ford’s Tri-Flex fuel capability, allowing the V-10 engine to run on hydrogen, E85 or gasoline. The automaker says this 265-in. long beast can travel more than 500 miles on a single tank of hydrogen. The transition from the various fuel types is handled through a dashboard-mounted switch, although moving from either gasoline or E85 to hydrogen requires the Super Chief to be at idle to engage the supercharger, which only operates when the truck uses hydrogen power.
IMPLICATIONS: The F-250 Super Chief Concept is big, brawny and excessive [and rumored to be a sign of the Future design for conventional F-Series pickups] and inspired by the American Super Chief locomotives from the mid-to-late 1930’s. The Super Chief seems like an oddity at a time when “small is big” in the U.S. market, yet it could become a bid to take some air out of the sales of fully loaded Escalade EXTs.
Buick Enclave Concept
WHAT IT IS: A thinly disguised look at Buick’s future Lambda-based cross-over utility vehicle [CUV], replacing the Rendezvous and arriving in showrooms in 2007.
CLEVER FEATURES: A unique DVD entertainment system enables passengers to view up to four different DVD selections simultaneously. For added ambiance, there is a skylight that extends the entire length of the passenger compartment. Enclave is Buick’s latest attempt to build a cohesive design theme for the brand, picking up on some design cues from the Lucerne sedan, including the waterfall grille and portholes [which are nicely integrated into the hood].
IMPLICATIONS: The Enclave will share its Lambda underpinnings with the Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia that will be released in late ’06 and ’07. The real story here is the platform, which is expected to be leaps-and-bounds ahead in terms of ride and handling versus the outgoing GMT-201 U-body minivan platform used in the Rendezvous and much-maligned Pontiac Aztek. This enables GM the opportunity to Fill a noticeable void in its lineup, providing customers with an alternative that is stylish and more manageable than traditional full-size SUVs, with all the functionality and flexibility and passenger room of the big boys.
Audi Roadjet Concept
WHAT IT IS: The world’s first glimpse at Audi’s QS CUV, a smaller alterative to the Q7, slated to debut in 2007.
CLEVER FEATURES: Roadjet features an updated version of Audi’s Multi Media Interface system, complete with a 10-in. screen, which is accompanied by 7-in. displays fitted into the back of the Front seats For rear occupant entertainment. On the safety front, Roadjet includes a WLAN-based car-to-car communications system with data transfer capabilities, providing real-time traffic information and warning of potential road hazards. Seating in the concept is a 4-plus-1 configuration, complete with a built-in baby seat positioned behind the two rear passenger seats.
IMPLICATIONS: Audi design boss Walter De Silva’s latest creation provides the first harmonious fusion of the Audi horse collar grille with shapely bodywork in a compact 5-door package that features a more pronounced wedge-shape. The Roadjet’s cabin is rumored to be a strong hint of future Audi interiors, with a focus on minimalism and high-tech touches.
WHAT IT IS: The replacement For Lincoln aged Town Car Flagship sedan, slated to debut 2008.
CLEVER FEATURES: MKS debuts the Lincoln Mobile Media System, a touch-screen interface incorporating audio, climate and navigation controls into a single unit, along with Bluetooth device connectivity. Adaptive front lighting improves on current cornering systems by using two light sources, consisting of high-output halogen projection main beams assisted by a row of light emitting diodes that illuminate as needed. Power on the concept is provided by the 4.4-liter V-8 Yamaha engine Found in the Volvo XC90. Inside, the instrument panel features a slender ribbon of Silvered Birdseye maple with a suede covered center console, while the gauge cluster design was inspired by sports watches.
IMPLICATIONS: Riding on the Ford Five Hundred/Mercury Montego platform, the MKS scores more points on the styling scale than the current Town Car, although the switch to a Front-wheel drive platform marks a somewhat questionable shift at a time when rear-drive sedans are the rage. Lincoln hopes to counter this by providing the MKS with all-wheel drive.
Aston Martin Rapide
WHAT IT IS: A return to the sedan segment for Aston Martin and a resurrection of a moniker that debuted in the 1930’s under the Lagonda brand.
CLEVER FEATURES: Based on the VH vehicle architecture shared with the DB9, the Rapide is 11-in. longer than the DB9 and features a rear hatch design similar to the Vantage. The roof is made of an ultra-light polycarbonate–a First for Aston Martin–providing a more open-air feeling in the passenger compartment. The interior also features an integrated chiller cabinet in the rear, shaped to hold a magnum of champagne along with four flutes.
IMPLICATIONS: Make no mistake, the Rapide is destined for production. Insiders say Aston Martin plans to build a few hundred per year beginning in the next 12 to 18 months. This is the latest sign that ultra-sport sedans are alive and well and the Rapide is likely to give the Mercedes CLS and Maserati Quattroporte a run for their money.
Hyundai HCD9 Talus
WHAT IT IS: A 2+2 concept that could slot in Hyundai’s lineup above the Tiburon, providing unique functionality in the sports vehicle market.
CLEVER FEATURES: The Talus features wireless internet connectivity for surfing the web while cruising the highway, along with night vision and a shift-by-wire 6-speed automatic transmission. The cargo area features a clamshell design that can be configured in three different ways, while additional storage space is available via a locker beneath the typical load floor.
IMPLICATIONS: The Talus is the second Hyundai concept vehicle to feature a V-8 engine–the first was the Neos III concept shown at Tokyo in October 2005. The 4.6-liter engine is capable of producing up to 340 hp. Another important piece is the Talus’s rear-wheel-drive configuration. Could this mean the Koreans have a pickup coming just around the corner?
RELATED ARTICLE: SCREAMING ARROW
When you have the RX-8 and MX-5 [previously known simply as the Miata] in your lineup, when your buyers happen to be among the youngest in the market [average age 41], and when you start thinking about what you might have for Gen Y auto enthusiasts, then you come up with the Kabura concept, a compact sports coupe that is actually built over MX-5 chassis components, a rear-drive vehicle [enthusiast-preferred] powered by the MZR 2-liter engine found under the MX-5 hood.
However, this isn’t a variant on the MX-5. For one thing, it is dimensionally bigger [length: 4,050 mm vs. 3,995 mm; width: 1,780 mm vs. 1,720 mm; height: 1,280 mm vs. 1,245 mm; wheelbase: 2,550 mm vs. 2,329 mm], which leads to the second big difference: it is capable of seating more than two people [they say four, but …]. In addition, this isn’t a two-door, but a two-and-a-half door, as the RX-8 is, but in this case the opening mechanism for the right-hand access door is quite different: push-button actuation causes the door to slide into a cavity in the rear quarter panel. To provide as much room for the passenger behind the front passenger seat as the front passenger gets, there is a distinctively smaller IP than is the norm and the glovebox is eliminated from the location in front of the passenger. As a result, the front passenger seat is actually moved forward six inches from where the driver’s seat is located so that the person in the rear gets additional room.
Because this is a comparatively small car, a sense of spaciousness could be lacking, so there is an expanse of glass that starts at the cowl and moves from the windshield back to the B-pillar. Because people don’t necessarily like to be baked by glass roofs, there is an adjustment knob that allows the transparency to be decreased. Moving back from the B-pillar there is a two-piece glass hatch that can be pivoted up so that it not only provides circulation, but provides a bit more headroom for those in the rear. The rear section of that hatch is hinged for access to the cargo compartment.
In keeping with a more environmental ethos, there is extensive use of recycled material. This isn’t the case of taking some rubber and grinding and molding it into floor mats or the like. Rather, the leather surfaces are actually made from the waste leather from producing Nike shoes; the leather is transformed by Sustainable Solutions into what appears to be, well, ordinary leather.
One more thing. Kabura? It’s from a Japanese term signifying an arrow that makes a howling sound when loosed; this arrow was historically launched at the start of a battle. Presumably, Mazda is throwing down its claim to owning the market for small sports cars.
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