Design is the driving force behind every auto show.
"Auto shows are a great platform to showcase our entire lineup to a very targeted and sizable audience who are at the show because they are interested in seeing cars and trucks companies have to offer. Most auto show attendees are actively shopping their next car and the show is the ultimate low-pressure shopping experience," says Ralph Gilles, global head of design, FCA.
And the best way to stand out from the competition at an auto show is through design. "Now more than ever, design works harder in order to stand out in a very crowded market while continually building the equity of the nameplate and the company itself," says Gilles.
Car design captures the hearts and minds of consumers worldwide; it accelerates the hype of any auto show, at home or abroad. And it's not just the wildest, wackiest, and funkiest designs like the Range Rover Evoque convertible, a topless SUV unveiled at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, or the BMW i8, the German auto maker's first hybrid sports car with the unmistakeable scissor doors that debuted at the 2013 Frankfurt auto show, or even the 1500 hp Koenigsegg Regera hypercar shown at the 2015 Geneva auto show, that grab attention and make headlines internationally.
At the 2014 Los Angeles show, Audi design chief Marc Lichte introduced the Prologue concept vehicle as "the new era of Audi design ... the time to take a bigger step." It would signal the approach taken to the A6, A7 and A8 with a low-slung front end, sleek and powerful profile, wide grille with horizontal rails, and big wheels accentuating the Quattro all-wheel drive.
At CES2016 in Las Vegas, parent-company Volkswagen introduced the electric Budd-e, a hippy-era throwback concept with little resemblance to the iconic microbus. With a squat styling compared with the original lean-and-long van, it's accented by a V-shaped front panel, sloped roofline, neon light bars, a drawer in the back for the delivery guy to drop the parcel, and an absence of door handles. With a gesture of the hand, the side door opens to a lounge outfitted with swivelling chairs and a floor from recycled wood, while the large dashboard is outfitted with giant monitors for weekenders to play with. "It thinks, learns, understands us," company chairman Herbert Diess said.
Even family-friendly people movers can cause a stir and capture big-time publicity. Case in point: the all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which got more than its share of attention at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month.
"Exterior design is what grabs you from the moment you see the vehicle; it's that tug you feel on your heart and the gravitational pull as if it's a reflection of the prospective owner's self-image," says Gilles.
But it's not only about exterior design – innovative, interior styling cues such as the Pacifica's new hands-free sliding side doors and a Stow 'n Vac built-in vacuum cleaner also play a role.
"The interior of the vehicle is where the driver and passengers spend all of their time," says Gilles. "Therefore, it's essential that everything they touch, feel and experience is pleasing to their senses in order to make their driving and riding experience positive. More than ever, interiors have become connectivity portals and it's a design challenge to manage all of this data in a safe, compelling and beautiful way."
Nestled amid the production cars are the concept vehicles vying for the spotlight on any auto show floor. Often, they succeed at enticing crowds thanks to outrageous and futuristic designs. It's not a new phenomenon; history proves it.
Remember the space-age 1961 Ford Gyron concept, the 1960 Jetsons-like Plymouth XNR, or the revolutionary Maserati Boomerang concept unveiled at the 1971 Turin Motor Show?
Clearly, when it comes to design, the bolder the better. And that philosophy still holds true. Mercedes-Benz's F 015 Luxury in Motion self-driving concept car – with its digital-like living room complete with four rotating chairs – debuted at the 2015 CES in Las Vegas amid big fanfare.
The Maserati Alfieri 2+2 concept coupe, named after one of its founders and created to mark the Italian auto maker's 100th birthday, stole the spotlight when it premiered at the 2014 Geneva auto show. And who could forget the radical Spyker D12 Peking-To-Paris monster concept SUV complete with suicide doors, unveiled at the same show in 2006? Named after the grueling 1907 Peking-to-Paris race where a Spyker 18/22 HP captured second place, this concept was later scraped because of financial difficulties.
Bugatti's stunning Vision Gran Turismo concept super car, which premiered at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, also wowed crowds and captured headlines globally. The concept paid tribute to the company's racing history, but it'll never make it into production; it was designed merely for PlayStation's Gran Turismo video game.
Will design details such as rotating lounge chairs, suicide doors, or widening bumpers ever make it into a production vehicle? Probably not. Often outrageous in execution, concept cars are pricey – in many cases, topping the $1-million mark. Many will never see the light of day in their original form.
But it doesn't matter if they make it into mass production; concepts still serve a purpose at an auto show.
"At FCA, we have always used concept cars to give consumers a glimpse into the future or to gauge interest and thoughts on potential designs and features that could make its way to current products. What has changed the most is how companies use show cars to further amplify the brands ethos and at the same time test the acceptance of new proportions, formats and propulsion concepts," says Gilles.