Two decades ago, car designer Tom Kearns would make a point of strolling the floor of the big annual auto show in Detroit to see the latest designs from Asian competitors. What impressed him? Not much.
"You almost didn't pay attention," says Kearns, who was working for General Motors at the time. "I thought we clobbered them."
Now Kearns is head of the U.S. design studio here for South Korean maker Kia. His latest handiwork and that of others goes on display to reporters today and Thursday at the press preview for the New York International Auto Show, open to the public from Friday to April 19. It will range from minicars to a 621-horsepower Bentley cruiser.
Kearns considers the sleek metal babies that his team is cranking out to be designs as good as or better than anything Detroit is offering.
In fact, they all have a lot in common.
Consumers used to embrace new cars and trucks from GM, Ford Motor and Chrysler because despite any failings, they were considered better-looking and distinctive.
Today, all new cars from the world's major makers are designed by pretty much the same folks — a roving band of top designers for hire. Their careers are spent going from one automaker to the next, spanning the globe. As a result, designs are often not as distinctive as in the past.
Also, most of their cars must eventually be on sale on several continents at once. As beautiful as they might be, it's harder to make them distinctive as designers are forced to seek lower common denominators to appeal to multiple regional tastes.
Safety and technology features force an international homogenization of appearance as well. The Europeans adopted regulations designed to better protect pedestrians when they get struck by cars, and cars worldwide became more snub-nosed and devoid of hood ornaments as a result.
We are the world
It's a far cry from the American showboats of the 1950s through 1980s that stood apart from just about everything else produced. Newfangled Toyotas shipped in from Japan ran like clocks but never could capture the panache of a mid-1960s Chevrolet Impala.
Today, a Nissan Altima competes in size and looks with a Ford Fusion. A Toyota Tundra pickup takes aim at a Dodge Ram. A Pontiac G8 may be marketed as pure American muscle, but it's actually a buff Australian import.
Designers themselves love how they are stretching borders. Sure, foreigners are luring away top American talent. But many of them go on to design some of the world's most famous cars for other markets. Conversely, some top foreign designers turn their talents to developing icons of the American highways.
The quest is always the same: to dig into the ethos of a place and a people to figure out what kind of ride they will love.
"We're cultural architects," says Freeman Thomas, now a top designer for Ford Motor after stops at Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and what was DaimlerChrysler. "It's designing for a specific culture and customer."
American design was always rebellious, free-form, not as tied to tradition, Thomas says.
"American is about something provocative, taking the risk on something flamboyant," says Ralph Gilles, vice president of design for Chrysler. The result can be a success like Gilles' 300C, Chrysler's hit sedan earlier this decade. The risk: a disaster like GM's much-maligned Pontiac Aztek, long gone from the lineup. The damage from failure usually isn't long-lasting: Americans, Gilles notes, "have no fear of reinventing themselves." Or their cars.
That's why foreign brands often want U.S. designers when they want to break out of a rut.
Car design on a global scale
It is common now for a product lineup to be a mix of designs from teams around the world.
Sometimes that's true of a single car. With GM's 2010 Buick LaCrosse, a brand that sells well in China, the exterior was given a traditional Buick appearance right down to the stylized version of the brand's trademark "porthole" engine vents. The interior, however, was designed by GM's Chinese joint-venture studio. The car was shown first at last year's Beijing auto show. In China, it will be sold under a name from Buick's American past: Invicta.
"It wouldn't be right to say the whole interior or exterior is influenced by one region," says Michael Simcoe, GM's head of exterior design, who happens to be an Australian import. GM has 11 design centers around the world.
In fact, artistic flair plus wanderlust seem to be a winning combination for getting ahead in the car biz these days. At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., one of the leading training grounds for auto designers, many students take internships abroad. "These guys come back from their internships, and their eyes are just opened," says Jay Sanders, director of transportation design.
Top designers, however, don't always have to grab a long flight to change from an automaker in one country to another. Often, the shift is only a few miles in Southern California.
Automakers have clustered design centers here in the nation's largest auto market. Studios range from BMW Designworks in the north to Nissan Design America in the south. Kia is only the latest, opening last year in Irvine, just a few miles from studios of Ford and South Korean sibling brand Hyundai.
When star Hyundai designer Joel Piaskowski, another GM veteran, decided to join Mercedes-Benz last year, he needed to go no farther than another design center a few miles south in San Diego County.
Designers adapt to the times
As bright as their creations may be, new realities for designers are the recession and rising government gas-mileage rules.
"What was considered, until a few months ago, as the American ideal of auto design is being questioned," says Stewart Reed, the transportation design chair at the Art Center College of Design. But such pressure to innovate can stimulate creativity.
No one knows better than Michelle Christensen. Fresh out of Art Center at age 25, she sketched the first outline of a likely star at this week's New York show, Acura's ZDX. The prototype of the sporty four-door that looks like a coupe will be unveiled today.
Her design beat others in the cutthroat internal design competitions brand parent Honda holds for new vehicles, years before they show up as concepts under the klieg lights at the shows — and longer yet before they are real-world vehicles headed for dealer showrooms.
"This whole thing has been extremely humbling," says Christensen, now 28.
She knows all about internationalism. The basic shape of the ZDX, a concept car now but likely to be prowling American roads before long, was inspired by the roofline of a volleyball stadium that Christensen saw in Japan. She says she sees interesting shapes everywhere.
"You see forms in your head, and they start to take shape on a page. It's kind of a burden. You can't help but look at every little detail," she says.
Her exterior design boss, Damon Schell, says the ZDX ended up with a look that is easily identified with Acura. "People wouldn't have a hard time connecting it." But, he adds, the car is aimed for international appeal. His crew talked about how it might sell in China or Russia.
Kia embodies the trend
Nowhere is the globalization of design more evident than at Kia's stunning new design studio in Irvine in Orange County.
Kearns, a lean 45-year-old who grew up in the Midwest, shows off the turntables and wall-size viewing screens where designs are pondered, not far from the booths where milling machines turn computer drawings into full-size clay models.
Among his 15 designers are Korean, Italian, Venezuelan, Chinese and American nationals. "It's like the United Nations in here," says Ray Ng, one of the Americans.
Italian designer Massimo Frascella, who worked for Italian designer Bertone and for Ford before Kia, says differences exist among brands from different continents, but they can be subtle. "We have to go deep into the DNA of the brand" to draw needed distinctions.
Kearns knows firsthand. At GM, he worked on the acclaimed Cadillac CTS sedan and saw how to make it distinctly American. The car's sharply creased, angular body was similar to the stealth fighter jet, an American icon. The car's high-tech feel is also in keeping with buyers' affection today for electronics, from iPods to personal computers.
Making a fresh start
At emerging brand Kia, Kearns is creating a new design heritage, starting with the Soul, just out. He's not stuck with longtime signatures — BMW always gets a split grille; Saab's ignition key always goes in the center console.
Still, there's a healthy respect for the competition. In one room, Kearns keeps a few parts from cars that he especially admires. Kearns loves the way his palm cradles a BMW shift knob. There's also a particularly swoopy headlight from Audi.
Kearns' big achievement so far is the Soul, a youth-oriented car that could help set the standard for a run of Kias to come.
His goal was a cleaner, simpler yet bolder look, even if it's not especially in tune with other designs coming out of South Korea.
His exterior designer, Erik Klimisch, is another Ford veteran. He says he likes having less bureaucracy at Kia compared with the endless design meetings in Detroit. Though he loves American cars, he says the Asian and other brands have made huge strides.
"They just got better."