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Creating that emotional connection in a world filled with cookie-cutter SUVs

In a world dominated by cookie-cutter sport utilities and crossovers, automotive designers strive to create an emotional connection between vehicles and prospective owners.

The challenge is complicated by two seemingly conflicting trends: The evolution of cars into digitally driven appliances and people's yearning for things that at least appear crafted by human hands, which has driven the artisanal movement.

Food, clothing and furniture have all been influenced by the desire, especially among the young, for things that don't seem mass produced, said Jason Hill, an instructor in transportation design at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

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"I want something that has a crafted and hand-finished feel because I know it's genuine," said Hill, whose design portfolio includes work on Mercedes' Micro Compact Car that led to the Smart car and Porsche's Carrera GT supercar. "That authenticity is important."

Ironically, people started flocking to SUVs in the 1990s because they stood out in a world of low-slung aero-shaped sedans. Risk-averse auto makers today are reluctant to get too radical with market-critical SUVs.

"So that's I think the reason that you have a homogeneous look," Hill said. "No one wants to be too risky; they just want to deliver the metrics. It's such an important vehicle, we don't want to scare anybody off."

It's not hard for coupes and sports cars to pack an emotional punch – much more challenging when it comes to a two-box SUV.

If your marque has the pedigree, you can trade on its heritage to push emotional buttons. Alfa Romeo's new Stelvio SUV takes that approach.

The design priority for the century-old auto maker was to make its identity as an Alfa clear, Scott Krugger, head of Alfa Romeo Design, said via e-mail from Italy.

"With this philosophy, we designed with a strong sense of sculpture and athleticism, allowing the vehicle type to become secondary," he said. "Alfa Romeo's history proves that there are several styling characteristics and form languages, but the overarching quality is the undeniable sense of art and passion."

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For Hill, the jury's out on whether that goal was accomplished. The company's latest products, including the Stelvio "don't scream Alfa," he said. Its identity only becomes clear when you spot its distinctive chevron-shaped grille.

Jaguar milked its heritage through the 1980s and 90s, surfing a retro trend that helped sustain its shaky market position. New deep-pocketed ownership has re-energized the venerable marque, which Hill said is reflected in its design.

Hill said the 2016 F-Pace crossover SUV is an example of how Jaguar has weaned itself off reliance on exterior heritage styling cues while retaining the emotional resonance that endears people to the brand.

"Jaguar successfully brought the inside experience forward while radically changing the outside experience," he said. "It's a big departure and they got a little bit of backlash from some, but you've got to move with the market."

Heritage can become a trap that handcuffs designers to the past, Hill said.

"You've got to manage the evolution," he said. "Otherwise it's a dead-end street. You've gone backward – 'Look at this! Remember?' – and it's hard to go forward again."

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With no deeply entrenched heritage look, Mazda has taken a different approach, emphasizing the crafted quality of its styling via its KODO (Soul in Motion) design language to establish an emotional connection.

The company utilizes modern digital-design tools but tries to involve traditional modellers early on, North American design director Julian Montousse said in an interview at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

"We're building a form that describes best the emotion," he said. "After that, once we start designing the car in place, we go into the CAD (computer-aided design). We want the emotional definition to be by hand."

Mazda design chief Shinichi Isayama, who led the CX-5 SUV design team, prefers classic cars from 40 years ago to today's more prosaic designs.

"I want people to look at our cars and think, 'Mazda is a company that makes such beautiful cars,'" he said. "That's what I want to hear."

With the CX-5, exterior flair is carried over with strong attention to detail inside the cabin in hopes those who bought one based on its curb appeal don't fall out of love after the honeymoon.

"That's where the craftsmen come in with their work," Isayama said.

It's a shrewd approach, Hill said. A vehicle's exterior should be pleasing and attractive, but it's how things are organized and finished inside that helps people to connect more deeply with it.

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