On GM design…

This car was introduced a very short time ago. It’s the Chevy Volt and whilst its drivetrain holds a lot of promise for the environmentally conscious, in design terms it looks (to my uneducated eye) like……like…..a mid-1990’s version of what a future car might look like.

Is it just me?

Chevy Volt

One of the things that worries me about GM’s ownership of Saab is that apart from Saabs, I don’t like much of GM’s design work. There’s the odd model that looks quite good. I’m quite fond of the Astra coupe for example, but for every one of those there’s a bunch of Cadillacs on the other side of the ledger.

By virtue of the fact that they never had much money for new designs, Saab’s designs had to be chosen carefully as they had to last a long, long time. Most of the time they were very good at it and a well maintained Saab of almost any era can still look quite contemporary today.

Next time you’re with a non-Saab person and you see a pristine early 1990’s Saab 900, ask the non-Saaber how old they think it is. I guarantee you’ll get a number less than 15 in response. I saw a beautiful, silver 9000 Aero this morning and you’d almost swear the car was six years old at the most, rather than 10-14 years old.

Given that most of Saab’s design (actually, all of it) is now done in Germany I tend to worry a little for the future.

On the other hand, the Aero-X is still stunning in every respect and the 2008 Saab 9-3 is 99% brilliant (I’ll take off 1% for the rear light blackness, which doesn’t translate in all colors). They still seem to be looking after Saab pretty well and the rumours I’ve heard about the new 9-5 and the 9-4x are all very, very positive.

But in the back of my mind I can’t help but think that with all the moving around that these designers do, someone who had a hand in the Volt might end up being given the job to work on a new Saab one day.

And that worries me a little.

Just thinking, that’s all.

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14 Comments

  1. You are spot on with that observation — 20 year old Saabs continue to look downright contemporary. In a way, it’s self-fulfilling…the long-life cycle times of Saab designs and consistency from year-to-year makes in hard for the average observer to discern the model year at a glance. With a badge that pumps out new generations every three-to-five years, an 8 year old car may be (glaringly) two generations behind.

  2. The ‘Volt’ kind of takes its styling cue from the new (ahem) Chevrolet Malibu and kind of looks like future Chevrolet designs and the direction the brand is going. Chevy, like Toyota and Honda tend to appeal to the masses overall, but they never really break any styling barriers.

    Here in America, certain GM designs tend to stand out more than others. I know there is not much love for Cadillac around the threads on these boards – but the CTS-V series and STS-V series have distinctively uncommon American muscle car look that works IMHO. The CTS-V reminds me of an old Buick Grand National – black, bad and it can lay waste to just about anything in its path (yep, I have driven one).

    The Saturn Sky is impressive as well, especially when moving down the road. Hard to believe that one came out of GM.

    I love the looks of my new 9-3 SportCombi, but not everyone ‘gets’ the car – I can tell. The Aero has distinctive stylizing and arguably one of the better interiors I have ever seen in a car. You may not love the corporate GM radio, but it works. The rest of the interior is functional, and everything works the way I like.

    I really have to doubt that the current GM regime would stick one of the Chevy Camaro or Cadillac Deville guys as lead designer on a Saab. They seem to have woken up over the past few years in a way that I never thought possible. People complain all the time how GM cars share platforms – but they have managed fairly well as of late with the exception of Pontiac. The ‘we build excitement’ crew is pretty screwed up – and possibly beyond repair.

    Given that the 9-3 is carrying the Saab line as this point, lets hope the future products continue to rejuvenate the brand just as the 2008 9-3 re-skin has.

  3. Buick was seen as being a damaged brand coming out of the 80s, just like Pontiac, and they’re having a bit of a comeback right now (and they’ll have a hell of a comeback if they do something along the lines of the Velite). GM likes to make turnarounds in zero seconds flat with its brands (look at Saturn and Cadillac), it’s possible that they just haven’t gotten around to doing Pontiac yet, what with all the other brands they’ve started kicking ass with.

    As for the Volt, one thing I really like about it is that it gives the impression of having a high beltline, but really doesn’t. I think the styling is fine (especially considering it looks like a 9-3X :p).

    Also, as far as GM designs go, Swade, you have to consider that there are something like 100 or so different GM models around right now, and they’re all from different brands and are aimed at completely different people. They’re not all going to appeal to you. I don’t really like how Pontiacs are styled, and I could take or leave some other cars, but for the most part, I think GM’s cars look pretty good compared to, say, the asstastic Asian cars on the road.

  4. Saabs have always dated well in my eyes, like the older Mercs. As much as I like my 9-3 look how much better the new car looks and it was from central design. Remember most designers until very recently, all came from 2 Colleges in the UK so they were all exposed to the same influences.

    As for cars looking the same, sure some may be a bit similar but I can point to loads of individiual designs, the TT, Alfa 8c, new Mondeo, Chrysler 300, Citroen C8 the new Corsa and there are loads more. I
    also think that Saab maybe influences GM,there is quite a bit of Saab in the car above. The reason I bought a Vectra over a Mondeo 5 years ago was due to all of the Saab influences in that car. I think a lot of people forget to acknowledge what Saab gives GM and focus on what Saab lost.

  5. Swade,

    Don’t knock Cadillac on the basis of the Escalade and some other dinosaurs. The XLR has got the best road presence of any car I know. Pictures tend to not do it justice, perhaps because it is a very low car and people shoot it from a high angle. I think that it looks better than the ‘vette or any of its competitors (M6’s, SL’s, Ferrari’s, Lambo’s).

    You shouldn’t assume that a designer that works on a Chevrolet is tainted for life. I am sure that any decent designer could knock-off half a dozen Chevy designs before lunch without breaking a sweat, just like good musicians can improvize cheezy rock ballads without putting down their beers.
    Doing either of these things doesn’t mean that you can’t do good work as well.

  6. Bernard, I’m not knocking Cadillac on the basis of one particular vehicle or another. I’m knocking them on the basis that I think they’re hideous.

    And there’s definitely a certain genericness to a lot of GM’s design work across various brands. It’s a worrying design language to me, but I’m only one person.

    An interesting aside, there’s a number of people that defend Cadillac against my tirades, which is fair enough. But I think it disproves GM’s contention that a customer that looks at Saab, in general, won’t even consider a Cadillac. There’s obviously a number of people in the small sample I could produce here that have some admiration for both.

  7. Swade, I agree that GM has a lot of ‘generic’ cars across its line – but a lot of people out there just don’t care about style. The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Chevy Impala are among the best selling cars in America and they are all about as exciting as a cheese sandwich in the base model configuration that most people buy them in – and they sell a ton of them.

    Ford proved about ten years ago when it re-designed its Taurus that people like something different, but they balk at something quirky. Sales never recovered and the car became the choice of rental fleets.

    As for Cadillac – well you owe it to yourself to experience a CTS-V. It is a pretty sharp car, and power like that is bound to make you grin from ear to ear. Other than that Cadillac is all over the place, from appealing to the ‘bling’ crowd with its Escalade to its Deville buyers who should be on the endangered species list at this point.

    Unfortunately, GM needs to build a lot more of those ‘cheese sandwiches’ so they can re-capture some US market share that Toyota and Honda have taken from them. And they need to be bullet-proof reliable as well. Keep those people warm, fed and happy – and you can get back to building some cool products that don’t necessarily need to make money hand over fist.

    Consider also that GM is knee deep in contract negotiations with the UAW right now (who would strike faster than you can say “healthcare”), so the General has plenty on its proverbial plate. A hiccup now would cost them dearly. The quicker they settle up with that crew – the faster they can get back to concentrating on building cars again.

  8. Swade – I’m curious, why do you think Cadillacs are so hideous? What is it about them, specifically, that makes you hate them so much (besides the Bastardized Little Saab and all the stuff in Europe)?

    Also, I’m definitely a person who, when buying a car, would consider a Cadillac just as seriously as I would consider a Saab, because I love them both so much. I think most people like me are in America, and GM needs to see that.

    I agree with Bernard, the XLR looks frickin cool on the road, but looks like a huge mistake on a computer screen. If only there was a Wildcat to go with it.

  9. I’m not sure anyone *hates* Cadillac. They just don’t suit the taste and needs of buyers in Europe. Probably the same way a Fiat don”t suit the taste and need of buyers in the US. Neither Cadillac or FIat is a bad car in general because of that.

  10. Jeff, I don’t hate Cadillac. In car-buying terms they’re on a similar level to Toyota for me. They’re parsley. I think they look terrible, with no fluidity to them at all, like they were made from granite. And the interiors are totally tasteless. They’re the fat Elvis of cars.

    But that’s just me.

    My objections to Caddy in Europe are based on the fact that they’re consuming buckets of money and laying an egg and some bonehead in Detroit thinks that’s great because Cadillac HAS to succeed for GM to be successful.

    It’s near-sighted parochialism that keeps Cadillac as a wannabe prominent marque in Europe, not reality.

    I honestly believe that GM has a great opportunity to do something great in Europe with Saab. They could do better in the US too as a result, but Europe should be the focus.

  11. I think the Current Cadillac design theme looks great. They don’t look like any other car on the road. As for the Volt I saw it in person and it is very striking. Considering how the current crop of Hybrids look I think that is a good thing

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