Automotive design can be a frustrating business for those starting a career. Being presented with a blank piece of paper or an empty computer screen by a manufacturer and told to create an entirely new model for the company does not come on Day One, and for many may never come. Certainly it can be a long, hard, and highly competitive slog from designing a trunk handle, steering wheel stalk, or headlight switch, to a complete vehicle on which may rest the reputation and profits of an OEM.
So when Mark Fetherston, as Team Leader External Design Compact Cars, was given the chance to take on a key role in the creation of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class range, he was delighted. But the task had an added frisson: the Management Board did not want evolution, it wanted revolution—a design totally different from the original A-Class that would put sportiness ahead of packaging and replace aesthetic conservatism with a design that in Mercedes’ terms was overtly daring.
The original A-Class, which went on sale in 1997, was itself a complete departure from the company’s established vehicle range and daring in a technological sense, with innovative elements such as a sandwich floor and excellent packaging within an upright, practical configuration having no sporty pretensions. It was also unintentionally controversial, having to survive the results of a media-instigated “moose test” during which a production example overturned. It could have presaged a commercial disaster, but Mercedes quickly used what was then advanced electronic chassis technology to reverse a negative situation, and the car went on to sell 2.1 million units.
But after 10 years, Mercedes decided it was time to plan for a change. An internal design competition resulted in two sketches being melded to create the sporty compact that the Board wanted—and 30-year-old Fetherston, with a degree in Transport Design from the UK’s Coventry University, was given his great opportunity to lead the external design team.
The new car (previously described by AEI at http://www.sae.org/mags/aei/11243) was to be based on Mercedes’ front-wheel-drive MFA platform, which would spawn several variants: the initial five-door hatchback, the CLA Coupe, and others. Confusingly, the new B-Class also uses the platform, and it is actually part of the A-Class family.
Although functional, the hatchback version had to be low, sporty, and with highly distinctive down-road graphics (DRG) without shocking Mercedes’ established clientele, whilst attracting potential buyers from competitive marques. So it also had to have “premiumness” and the sort of aesthetic longevity that has long been a Mercedes strength.
“We fought (well, discussed!) with the engineers to get it as sporty as we could,” said Fetherston. “It was something provocative, daring, unexpected—especially for Mercedes. For me it was not just providing a premium feel—it was making an expressive statement.”
That statement started to become a tangible reality via a quarter-scale clay of the initial hatchback version: “We—the design team—worked really hard with our hands to create it. You can’t do this on a computer. In fact, we treated the car like a sculpture.”
He said the Board had given him and his team wide-ranging design freedom and even encouraged them to be more progressive: “The previous A- and B-Class models were much more conservative, much more held back.”
But always there was the need to ensure the premium message was being projected by the car’s curves, its use of concave and convex surfaces, and its detailing; Fetherston wants compact cars to push both aesthetic and engineering boundaries to demonstrate what can be achieved.
“A lot of ‘surface entertainment’ is needed to make a statement—to be expressive—in this very, very competitive segment. Sometimes designs can lack tension, look floppy or melted, not as tight as they could be. Run your hand along the beltline—designers want this quite high, strong, tough, and muscular—and down to the bottom of the doors of the new A-Class and there is clearly a general section of fullness to the car. Get this wrong, though, and it can look too heavy. If it is too flat, the car will look top-heavy and underweight in some areas.”
In side elevation, the new A-Class has very structured lines, he explained. As well as the defined beltline there is a second line: “This is like a swinging edge, quite low and protective, coming up from the sill. The reason for this directional change is that it ‘pushes’ the car forward. If it was not there, the car would tend to sit back and look more relaxed. So through this we get the proportions we need in the body, and it looks sporty from a distance, too.”
The “character lines” also bring a “tenseness” to the car, he stated.
This form of description is part of what has become the international language of the automotive designer/stylist that involves the application of adjectives, nouns, and verbs in linguistically unusual contexts. “Muscular rear haunches” is an expressive phrase via which designers across the world can communicate and understand exactly what each is expressing about pieces of metal, glass, and composites.
Fetherston regards the rear three-quarter view of the car as being his favorite area of the new A-Class. He doesn’t use “haunches” but does refer to “the muscular shape of the shoulder above the rear axle.” He explained that despite the new car being functional, it achieves a low roof at the rear with a small rear side window and a large spoiler, giving it the sporty look that was a prerequisite of the Board. The rear lights are large, and their subtle shape contributes to a best Cd figure of 0.26. “Designers always want to get the back of the car as low as possible—and we did,” he said.
They also did it with the front of the car, which is distinctive, the production AMG versions having what Fetherston terms “pins” in the diamond-effect grille seen on the concept version unveiled at the Shanghai Motor Show in 2011. There are fewer on the production car: “We do need to allow the engine to breathe!”
In addition to his compact cars role, Fetherston is solely responsible for the exterior design of the exotic gullwing SLS AMG. The correlation between the two may not be apparent, but in fact each lends to the other. However, says Fetherston, a supercar is easier to design because its proportions are intrinsically dynamic, whereas giving a compact hatch the requisite sporty signature is far more difficult.
Could the new A-Class be a timeless design and look good in decades in the manner of a Mercedes “pagoda” SL? Fetherston is diplomatically modest on the subject: “Sometimes very expressive, evocative ideas look good in 10, 20, 30 years’ time or more; some date very quickly.”
A-Class orders exceed 70,000 units before its showroom appearance, and Mercedes is already increasing original production capability planning to meet demand; so that does look good.