The native languages of automobile designers ceased to matter years ago. In studios around the world, Germans work for Americans, Japanese for Germans, and so on.
But another kind of language matters more than ever: The auto-design vocabulary that distills and defines the shapes and forms that make car families recognizable around the planet. Examples of the interplay between design and phraseology abound at the North American International Auto Show this year.
More companies publicly use names – like Kinetic or Fluidic Sculpture – for their vocabularies of shapes and styles. The chief of design at Mercedes-Benz, Gorden Wagener, refers to the look of the new C-Class, which made its debut at the Detroit auto show, as Sensual Clarity. The look echoes elements of classic Mercedes models, combined with flowing lines suggesting speed and power.
Once, such names were used only by designers, executives and the press. Now, thanks to the Internet and social media, auto buffs and even ordinary drivers may be heard discussing the Kodo design language expressed in the new Mazda3, how the ATS coupe evolves Cadillac's Art and Science look or whether the 2015 Mustang is Ford Kinetic 2.0.
At this year's show, many companies restated or reset their design languages. The bold V bar on the front of Nissan's Sport Sedan Concept is an abbreviation for V-Motion, the pun on velocity and emotion that the company's design chief, Shiro Nakamura, has applied to the company's next design language.
Hints of this look, presaged last year by the Resonance concept car, have turned up in the faces of recent production models like the redesigned Rogue crossover. It got a full statement in the Sport Sedan Concept, a foretaste of the next Maxima sedan. Standing beside the car, Nakamura said the elements of the new design language include the V face, boomerang-shape headlights, a "floating" roof and a sense of speed and dynamism in the sides.
With its FT-1 sports car concept, Toyota recast its Vibrant Clarity design language, according to its designers at Calty, the company's Southern California studio. After taking over as president and chief executive, Akio Toyoda issued a directive asking for more expressive design.
The directive called on designers to invigorate Toyota products with "energy, passion and Waku-Doki," which was translated as "a palpable heart-pounding sense of excitement."
The Calty studio responded with the FT-1. The car builds on elements of Toyota's sports car tradition, its designers said, including models as diverse as the Celica, Supra and GT2000. It includes elements the company will imprint on future production designs, said Kevin Hunter, the president of Calty Design Research.
Design languages are more like computer languages or operating systems than human tongues. For instance, they have versions. Ford is on Kinetic 2.0, according to J Mays, the auto maker's former design chief.
In Detroit, Hyundai officially proclaimed Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 in the form of the new Genesis. The company's flagship added a measure of elegance to the deeply folded and swept lines seen previously on the Elantra and Sonata.
More refined and elegant than Fluidic Sculpture 1.0, which dates to 2009, and "relying more on voluminous body sections than surface details to create dramatic forms," the new look is restrained. Whatever else it is, Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 appears Audi-like: The Genesis' single-frame Venetian-blind grille appears to come from the A8.
It is rare when a new language arrives all at once. But as Volvo recasts itself under new ownership, it brings a clean sheet of paper to the design process. The company's new design chief, Thomas Ingenlath, presented his second concept vehicle, the Concept XC Coupe, with fresh proportions, which are the grammar of a design language. The look does not have a name – yet – but is a clear anticipation of the redesigned XC90 crossover expected later this year. The Concept XC Coupe was recognized as the best concept at the Detroit show in the EyesOn Design awards.
At Mercedes-Benz, Wagener's Sensual Clarity name, though introduced along with the C-Class, applies to a set of shapes that has been a long time coming.
Sometimes design languages are announced not with cars but with art or other displays. Wagener became the head of Mercedes design in 2008, but products conceived under him would not show up for years. So instead of concept cars, he ordered up sculptures that expressed ideas of the new design language. He encouraged designers to think abstractly about elements of the look, and he teased it to the public. One sculpture showed a car emerging from metal, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Another morphed jet planes and microscopic cell shapes.
But the new look is also imbued with company history, Wagener said. In an interview in Detroit a year ago, he pointed out details: even the gunsight air vents of new models pick up on the past.
The new look channels elements of the auto maker's past without producing retro versions of specific models, he said. The C-Class's hood has a subtle double-bubble swelling, evoking the SL of the 1950s but also reading as an aero accent element.
Not every designer or company wants a name for its design language. BMW's former design chief, Chris Bangle, became inextricably linked to the rear deck of the 7 Series sedan, the infamous "Bangle butt." No wonder his successor, Adrian van Hooydonk, suggested in jest that he was wary of associating his long Dutch name with the company's look.
Lincoln has reinvented its whole look in the last two years, but has not given the design theme a distinct name. The company set up a new design studio and hired Max Wolff from Cadillac to reinvent its design language. The new models are consistent in style, down to details like the star logo "vents" on the side of each vehicle. "The phrase we always use like a mantra is "elegant simplicity," said Scott Tobin, Lincoln's chief of product development, but he added that the term was not a formal name for the design.
Kia's GT4 Stinger concept sports car, unveiled here on Jan. 13, offers a twist on the characteristic Kia tiger nose grille and other elements of the brand's highly consistent look. (Kia uses "tiger nose" as shorthand for its design language in lieu of a name, a spokeswoman said.)
A few minutes before the Stinger was unveiled, a reporter was talking with Peter Schreyer, Kia's design chief, about naming design languages. "I hate that," he said. Journalists want to give a name to a look, he added, and then say, "Is it 2.0 yet?"
And then, he said, "They want to know, "What comes next?"
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