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Why do cars look so similar? Making a particular vehicle stand out has never been more important or more difficult. 'Distinctive' was the adjective most used by this group of influential auto industry designers when asked about the look of their brands. It's no easy job: mass market auto makers are chasing good design just as hard as premium ones; safety regulations are getting tougher to meet; and demand for better fuel economy necessitates improved aerodynamics. It all adds up to a generation of cars that looks more alike than ever. The front end of a vehicle - 'face' as many designers call it – is where brands can distinguish themselves. Some have iconic grilles established over 100 years, while others are inventing new looks in the hope they'll catch on. All automotive designers, however, are using this canvas to help brands gain market share in this trillion-dollar industry. Matt Bubbers asks, how do you make one grey box stand out from the next?

Ford Moray Callum, vice-president, design Small world: Moray Callum, brother of Ian at Jaguar, took the top design job at Ford in January 2014. First of all, [our grille] is unmistakably Ford. It also showcases a detailed execution and provides a visually premium experience, proving that emotional design can also be affordable and practical. Some of our European models, like the Mondeo, already featured the inverted trapezoidal grill, although it was placed in a slightly different way. We raised it when we introduced the Ford Fusion in January 2012.


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Chrysler Brandon Faurote, head of Chrysler design, FCA North America Historic inspiration: 1955 Chrysler 300 We knew from the beginning we wanted to move the look of the 300 forward, but also knew we had a rich history to draw from, so we looked at the ’55 Chrysler 300 and also the ’05 model. Those cars simply had presence and we wanted that. [The front end] is one of the first design elements you notice when you approach a vehicle while parked outside, coming toward you in traffic, or in your rear-view mirror.


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Mazda Derek Jenkins, director of design for Mazda North America Out with the old: The “happy face” can be seen on the 2008-13 Mazda3, among other models. We moved away from what I would consider to be the “happy face” and it’s not that there was anything wrong with that, other than the fact we felt it was lacking a certain degree of maturity. Mazda is a serious car company. The cars have serious ability. And we wanted to show that confidence in the face of the car. We even wanted to have a tone that felt a little bit more upmarket and it’s hard to do that with a happy face.


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Lexus Cyril Dimitris, director, Lexus Canada Controversy: “Spindle grille” divides opinion since its debut on the 2011 Lexus LF-Gh concept. The goal of this aggressive styling is instant visual recognition – to turn heads and convey how the bold design of Lexus vehicles speaks to its performance and sophistication. Each model will adapt its own interpretation [of the spindle grille] to reflect that model’s individuality.

David Dewhurst Photography

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Hyundai Christopher Chapman, chief designer, Hyundai Design North America First appeared: New hexagonal grille debuted on 2015 Genesis sedan The hexagonal grille is actually a combination of two grilles found on Hyundai’s previous-generation vehicles. In the past, Hyundai vehicles either featured a wing-type or hexagonal grille, depending on the type of vehicle and its position within the line-up. Hyundai’s face identity begins with a philosophy, not just any one element to describe it. We want our cars to be approachable. We would like our customers to sense the machine as a friend.


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GMC Helen Emsley, executive director, Global GMC Design. Two faces of GMC: One for SLE/SLT trims, another for Denali models. GMC has a rich heritage of great trucks to draw upon that stretches back to the 1940s. As we interface with our customers, it is clear that exterior appearance holds tremendous weight in overall reason for purchase and, of course, the front end arguably plays the most significant role in the overall design. With this in mind, our goal at GMC is to deliver a portfolio of vehicles that uses bold, confident and precisely crafted exterior designs.


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Bentley Luc Donckerwolke, director of design Current inspiration: Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid (Heydar Aliyev Centre in Azerbaijan, MAXXI art museum in Rome). The Bentley face is defined, first of all, by the grille. … It is a really proud and self-confidence statement. We wouldn’t want to say what we’ve done before is old. What we’re doing [on the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept] is just the next step. The crystal in the lights, like a whisky glass, transforms the light, gives atmosphere. What we’re trying to create is this really magical moment. What you don’t need is not visible; it’s not there.


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Infiniti Alfonso Albaisa, executive design director, Infiniti Current inspiration: 2014 Q80 Inspiration concept car points to the brand’s future. Generally, people recognize the front end of an automobile almost as a human face. Cognitive research confirms this view across many cultures around the world. In particular, the grille is very significant within the premium segment as it strongly appeals to the brand values. For a premium brand, consistency in the grille expression is one of the key elements.


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Volvo Thomas Ingenlath, senior vice-president, design Thor connection: Headlight LEDs are meant to depict the Norse god’s hammer. We considered very thoroughly what “face expression” the new car generation of Volvos will radiate. It is utterly important to get this right, because just like with a human being, the first impression is long lasting. Do we want to show an aggressive attitude? No. Therefore we did not make the mouth grotesque big. We compare Volvo’s face with the face of a lion: his strength and authority comes across in his calm and confident expression.


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BMW Marc Girard, director global automotive design, BMW Designworks First appeared: “Kidney grille” debuted on 1933 BMW 303 The grille has two major motivations. First is consistency. Second is differentiation. To the first point, the grille is meant to be recognizable. So when you look in the mirror, you don’t have to read the badge, you know: it is a BMW. On the other end, we also want to have this face evolving, being a differentiator between the different products we offer. Even a BMW i8 or i3, which doesn’t need intakes, has the kidney grille at the front to be recognizable as a BMW.


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Aston Martin Marek Reichman, chief creative officer and design director Controversy: The grille on Ford’s 2012 Fusion looks similar to the one Aston has been using for decades. The original Bond car – the DB5 – it has a grille to die for. It’s a scalpel, not a knife. So what should a DB10 be? We don’t do retro design. It can’t be a parody of the original; it has to be modern and unique. So the DB10 wears a modern interpretation of that signature. The grille was actually inspired by sharks. There is a direct relationship between our own personality and the cars we drive. Your car is an outward expression of your personality; people see the car you drive before they see you. The grille is the face of that.

Nick Dimbleby

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Jaguar Ian Callum, Jaguar design director Historic inspiration: 1968 Series 1 XJ, last car by William Lyons Jaguar grilles have been an eclectic mixture since the start of the brand. They have never been consistent, always different. [The current design] conveys strength, positive assertiveness and consistency. The latter is something we really need to build into the brand because a lot of people still don’t understand what we are and who we are. The face of the car is going to be one of the consistent elements of the current and next-generation Jaguars.


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McLaren Robert Melville, chief designer Previous work experience: Jaguar, Land Rover, Cadillac, Corvette Beyond legal restraints, it’s all about airflow. That’s where the efficiency starts. If you’re efficient at the front… then the whole ethos flows through the car. The SR-71, the “Blackbird” spy plane – to me, it’s beautiful. Every line there is functional, meant to get from A to B in the most efficient way. But it also looks great. We’re a race car company, and it’s very similar: everything for a reason, beautiful yet functional. It’s all you need. It’s not styling or a trend. It’s just pure design.


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Mercedes-Benz Gorden Wagener, vice-president design, Daimler AG First appeared: The three-pointed star emblem was first trademarked in June, 1909 by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. The Mercedes star and the grille are well known and famous all over the world. There are clear rules about how a Mercedes should look from the front, even though there are two versions of the front end – one for sporty models and one for saloons. Three of our model series still feature the classic Mercedes radiator grille [with three-pointed star mounted above]. The S-Class will always have it, whereas most E-Class and C-Class customers opt for the sportier versions on which this trademark [star] is mounted in the radiator grille.

Daimler AG - Global Communications Mercedes-Benz Cars

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Audi Marc Lichte, head of design First appeared: Audi’s four rings emblem created in 1932. The Audi prologue family represents the beginning of a new era in Audi Design. All that you see in the Audi prologue concept cars will be found in the next generation of Audi luxury models. The single frame [grille] in the Audi prologue family is a clear evolution of a typical design element that is immediately recognizable as Audi. It is wider and flatter and makes the entire car look more substantial and sportier on the road.

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