The words “design icon” have become degraded, abused, and grossly overused by some elements of the automotive industry in hopeful descriptions of models that are nothing of the sort. But sometimes they fit precisely.
In 1955, the automotive world was shocked, intrigued, and excited by the appearance of a new model from Citroën that departed dramatically from the expected and accepted appearance of a family sedan, and seemed to be approaching the world of science fiction. The car was the DS19, and it remains one of the most significant advances in car design alongside the VW Beetle, original Mini, 1960s Ford Mustang, and Jaguar E-Type—design icons every one.
But departing from the design/styling “norm” has become increasingly difficult in the family car class, particularly those in the compact 2-box sector. Both manufacturers and end users believe that they know what they want, and generally this involves a conservative, cautious, considered, and common sense approach.
“Of course we can design a ‘science fiction’ car—but it may not sell; you have to adjust your creative thinking, and what you do, to meet the potential acceptance of the buying public,” said Peugeot Design Director, Gilles Vidal.
A graduate of the Art Center College of Design, Vevey, Switzerland, Vidal joined PSA Peugeot Citroën in 1996. At Citroën he became Head of Concept Car design in 2005 and later Chief Designer and Head of Advanced Design, before moving to Peugeot in 2009, initially as Head of Concept Car design and in 2010 into his present role. His advanced concepts include the Citroën C-SportLounge, demonstrating what—from a designer’s aspect—is possible.
But the really tough challenge that faces Vidal, and similarly highly creative designers in other companies, is meeting the criteria for market popularity and subsequently financial success of models that, in an aesthetic sense, are essentially conformist.
The compact European and Asian 2-box hatchbacks are in the vanguard of this collection of practical, worthy machines. Below their hoods may be advanced technology, downsized three-cylinder turbocharged engines that achieve extraordinary levels of performance, economy, and low emissions, but their exteriors are basically similar.
“The big challenge today is for manufacturers to make their cars look different from each other, particularly in the compact sector,” said Vidal. “Those cars make a very strong statement about their own brand and have a ‘personality.’ It is necessary today to design the brand identification more than the individual product. That means specific proportions, lines, surfacing, and materials, all of which must be fresh and innovative—but acceptable to the buyer.”
And he underlines what every designer stresses: “Car manufacturers have to cope with very tough constraints as regulations become ever more rigid and as internationalism grows. But they also have to cope with the need for greater efficiency, including aerodynamics.”
It is aerodynamics where styling, engineering, manufacturing, and physics meet, or at least attempt to do so. Achieving this can now be via computer modeling and virtual prototypes, but Vidal underlines that the “human touch” is still vital for the required brand identity of a Peugeot.
He can sketch just three lines (before inserting the wheels)—and does so during his discussion with this AEI Editor—to show the absolutely pared down, basic identity indicators of a Peugeot. These include relatively long hood, steeply sloping windshield, and high shoulder line.
Aerodynamic considerations plainly play an important part in this, but are they a challenge or an opportunity for a designer? “A bit of both. In theory an F1 car has an ideal shape, but if all designers followed that, every car would look the same!” And be totally impractical.
So for a new production design, it is back to the challenge of achieving an original shape that identifies the brand but preserves, as much as possible, required aerodynamics. “You know that you won’t achieve the best possible aerodynamic score (Cd or CdA) because we know that if we do so it will most likely be an ugly car. So we must have that brand identity and practicality—and a design that looks ‘sexy.’”
But Vidal indicates that better aerodynamic figures are in prospect. Asked about Mercedes-Benz’s ability to get new A- and B-Class models’ Cd figures down to the mid-20s, he said: “Yes, this is good but you can do way better than that.”
How, while still meeting the necessary practical and safety criteria? “We are looking at solutions, but we realize this is a very empiric subject. On F1 cars there are tiny details that aid aerodynamics; in a wind tunnel you may apply a few things such as blades that change the whole airflow performance. For the Citroën SportLounge concept of 2005, we used small puffer air jets to speed airflow. As the aerospace industry is aware, textures are important to reduce drag. We do experiment with concepts and prototypes that we may not show in public. For example, we have found that certain textures applied to a car can be more efficient in particular areas of the vehicle.”
For such a solution, though, manufacturing, and particularly painting the car to required standards, must be considered.
As Vidal puts it, “there is now a shift to different propositions.” These include radical solutions such as the pure electric four-seat Peugeot BB1 city concept car. Although not a compact, it demonstrates the way Peugeot is thinking about carrying four people in the future. Other companies are also producing basically similar designs, although not necessarily with four seats.
This type of car, Vidal says, offers opportunities for many shapes because of the powertrain positioning flexibility of electric vehicles: almost anywhere in the car including within the wheels.
Meanwhile, the familiar 2-box hatchback configuration continues with the recently introduced 208 and probably will with the next generation of the model.
In general aesthetic terms it is likely to be identifiable with the Peugeot 205 (the 30th anniversary of that model range’s launch, which included the very significant 205GTI, will be celebrated next year), although amusingly Vidal uses the evolutionary analogy of monkey-to-man to illustrate the progress made from then to the current 208.
Of course, there have been many compact hatches of similar configuration going back further than the 205, including the hugely successful VW Golf.
So, perhaps rather than any single compact model being regarded as an “icon,” that word should simply be applied to a generic shape and its practical application: the iconic 2-box hatchback.