Friday, May 30, 2008

Tail lights Aglow

You might think me fixated on tail lights, but these days they are almost all too big, too similar, and add very little distiction to the design of the cars they grace. I remember as a kid, riding in the car at night and being able to ID the cars going the other way by the tail lights. Forget about trying that these days.

Here are a few schools of design in the current crop of tail lights:

1) Completely Random Shapes: I think Infiniti really got things going in this department with the G35 Coupe. But others have jumped in, notably BMW, and Honda (Civic sedan). A large subset of this school is the random intersecting blobs, a fine example of which grace the back of Toyota Avalons these days. What is that stuff doing on the trunk lid? Why are they that odd shape and size? Did they shrink in the wash?

2) Tail light as fender: Initially part of the Completely Random Shape School, this movement has broken off with designs pioneered by Lexus and Toyota. Currently, Nissan takes the prize at this with the new Nissan Altima Sedan. The entire top and much of the side of the fender is part of the tail light, aft of the C-pillar. Why not build the whole car out of plastic?

3) Clusters Under Glass: These are almost passe now, but were cool when Lexus did them on the RS400 crossover. Once again, the Nissan Altima Sedan seems to have the biggest, most over the top example.

4) Anything LED: Caddilac got this going a while back (who'da thunk it) but now Audi, Land Rover, and BMW are getting on the bandwagon, and with a dollop more creativity than the guys at Caddy ever thought to use. I saw a Land Rover LED light cluster just today, and its pretty cool. You cant tell in the pic below, but the top lens is both the brake light, with red LEDs clustered in the center, and the directional signal, with yellow LEDs circling the edge. I think the bottom lens is the backup light. I like the understatement, alot.

So, you may ask, anything else good out there? Well, I like the HHR solution. Oddly similar to the Land Rover, but about 10,000 times cheaper. The '97 Toyota Camry had slim, horizontal red bezels that were simple and elegant. That was just before they moved towards the Completely Random Shapes school of thought. The current Honda Civic Coupe has tail lights that are not too big, fit their context, and work to reinforce the identity of the car. Anything else? Ummmm.... lets see now.

At least LEDs have a lot of promise of bringing more elegant, svelte solutions to tail lights. Lets hope it happens.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Inside Scoop

At The Truth About Cars, a recent question of the day asked if car interiors are important. I had to comment on that one...

But, it got me thinking I really do weigh the success of a car's interior on how I feel about the overall design. The themes on the outside have to show inside, and there should be some delight involved. After all, you are in your car, going some place, and it should make you happy.

Can I just say two words about color: More Please... Monotone interiors must go. Give me seats in one color or two colors, lighter tones on the dash, darker carpets, and door panels that bring it all together. You might say my ideal interior is this:

This beauty, an early '60s Pontiac, doesnt just have a red interior, no sir. It has 2 shades of red, plus the white of the exterior to create a composition that brings alot of delight, and 40 years into it, it looks fresh and progressive.

Here are my other guidelines for you budding car interior designers:
  • Banish all overly luxurious interiors that make you think that it would be a good place to sleep. Cars are terrible places to sleep... even if you are not the one driving.
  • Interiors should be interesting, express the point of view of the vehicle, as well as provide a functional space to control the car, the music, and the temperature. The seats have to adjust, as do the steering wheel, and I think the pedals too.
  • Intuitive controls (ie, something close to what people expect) are a must... I dont want to have to think too hard about where the horn button is, nor do I want to spend too much time changing the radio station.
  • And lastly, anything I touch or see should not have a creepy injection mold seam running up the side. I am quite bummed out that my new car has door pulls with a seam running up the back side (the side in contact with my hand, but not in view). Every time I get in and pull the door shut, I feel this little bit of cost cutting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Branding Debates

I have been thinking about branding alot lately. At work, we struggle with our 3, or is it 4 now, brand lines to keep them distinct. It is a real challenge to take what you do well, and roll that out into multiple brands that share certain qualities, yet maintain certain distinctions. Maintaining and improving these distinctions while improving each brand means we're always aiming at a moving target.

Same goes for car companies. Most of the voices out there call for paring down the number of car brands, and giving each one a more distinct personality seems right. The particulars of what people are calling for now are probably different than what they were saying 2-3 years ago. Gas prices, world economics, and buyouts change the symptoms, and thus the prescription. But clearly, there is an overcapacity, and the energy situation is requiring change.

While the economy is down, while there is a good amount of uncertainty, this is the perfect time to do something drastic. So please, let the US auto industry make some big changes now. Kill off divisions. Share platforms from other companies. Be leaders in reforming how health care is paid for in this country. Bring us real alternatives to how we fuel our cars. And even give us better ways to choose to leave the car at home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mazda: Using Design to Sell Cars

I really like Mazdas. I almost bought a hatchback Mazda 3, and still might if the Volvo dies suddenly (but not unexpectedly, after 240,000 miles). Apparently, I'm not alone, as this is one car company that is seeing sales heading up (at least in 2007) while so many others are wilting.

But, when you look at it, they don't offer anything anyone else doesn't, with the possible exception of the soon to be discontinued Mazda6 wagon and hatchback -- oh, and that funny rotary engine thing. Their cars get decent mileage, but not incredible -- again, except that rotary engine thing, which is addicted to gas. Interiors are nice, but again, not run away leaders in the pack. Reliability is also pretty good, so that doesn't hurt. But their shared platforms with Ford products mean you can pretty much get the same thing elsewhere. Even their "zoom-zoom" ad campaign is kinda lame. And aside from the Tribute hybrid, the only possible thing remotely green is the paint.

What Mazdas do have going for them is their strong design. (GM, Ford, Chrysler: please note that people actually do look at the exterior of cars.) Mazda's cars and cross overs look really good, and all have a corporate semblance so that you recognize each as a part of the corporate stable. There is a great aggressive sportiness, and a grace that goes into each model. Even the RX8, quirky as it is, is pretty charming. The only ugly duckling is the Tribute, a rebadged Ford. Mazda smartly uses design as the thing that makes them different, and different in a good way. And the progression of each model over time, especially notable with the Miata, and now with the new Mazda6 coming out, the picture just keeps getting better.

I only hope that they end up bringing the Mazda6 wagon here after all. It is really sharp looking. Maybe hook it up to a hybrid drive train. And put a big-ass sunroof in it. Throw in an interior that isnt a huge solid expanse of grey while we are at it. Bu-bye Volvo...