Designing for bigger profitability from small cars

  • 11-Feb-2013 12:44 EST

Ford of Europe Director of Exterior Design, Stefan Lamm, underlines the importance of design differentiation in the small-car sector.

The biggest challenge for the designer of small vehicles concerns profits. “Those vehicles have to make money and that is so difficult,” said Stefan Lamm, Director of Exterior Design, Ford of Europe (FoE).

To do so, they have to sell in huge numbers, and to start to achieve those sales, every model must be aesthetically distinguishable from its rivals while remaining thoroughly practical and able to meet all the criteria essential for economical transport. It is the job of Lamm and his team working under the overarching responsibility of Executive Design Director Martin Smith to make all this possible.

The latest Fiesta, now selling into 80 countries, is a prime example of this challenge, says Lamm, who was responsible for its design. An immediate indication is its pushy front-end styling, with a massive front grille (that some may feel is out of kilter with the rest of the car) and prominent “technical” headlamp shaping.

“The face of a car is the key element of distinguishing it from others,” said Lamm, who was Chief Designer at Opel/General Motors before joining Ford in 2004. “The point of it is brand building, and our trapezoidal signature grille also gives a more up-scale look. For small cars, all designers are dealing with similar propositions—and everyone is talking about dynamism.”

That means “surface entertainment” and a cab-forward design to provide a wedge shape: “It makes a car look agile, gives it dynamic lines.” He wants to see shorter front overhangs to emphasize a model’s dynamism, but safety requirements continue to militate against ideals.

“However, sometimes safety legislation can be a plus. Ten years ago, the need to achieve pedestrian safety challenged engineers and designers to do things in a different way. That has influenced design trends; now we have a wraparound hood, a high hood line, and 45° cutaways at the front end. This makes a car look more dynamic—so we have turned a possible minus into a plus. And who knows what changes will be required in 10 years’ time as protocols continue to change.”

The interior is just as crucial to making a car sufficiently attractive and “different.” “Yet we have to make room for five passengers and have an H-point at the right height. Thinner seats are good for weight saving and packaging but may present difficulties in terms of safety and comfort,” said Lamm. “A big interior change in the future will involve HMI and all those gadgets that people want and how we handle them.

“We also need to see how personal interests and needs of future customers will change—how much individual character they want in a car. We already put a lot of focus on individualism in areas such as colors and road wheel design,” explained Lamm, whose work has also included the new B-MAX and an array of concepts such as the iosis, iosis X, and Verve.

A problem, though, is always differing tastes—from the conservative, understated approach of northern Europeans to the extrovert, sometimes overstated approach of some Mid and Far East markets. “We have different trim lines that vary from country to country, particularly in Asia,” said Lamm.

And it is Asia where, important though it is, exterior design is not always the big issue. It may be rear-seat space and comfort that are the main criteria, explained Lamm.

While the latest Fiesta is well-equipped and has an interesting options list, a surprising omission is an opening sunroof or a distinguishing panoramic roof. To offer it, though, would add development costs for a relatively small customer take-up.

It is the sort of detail that can be crucial in the world of compact car design and production economics, where margins may be as small and as tightly drawn as the product.

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