America Rides Again
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
When Lincoln rolls out the 2007 MKZ in October, buyers will be able chose from interiors trimmed in light wood or metallics. Why these materials? “The light wood reflects the popularity of Scandinavian furniture and has a modern sophistication,” the head North American designer for Lincoln, Peter Horbury, said, adding that the metallic trim attracts different consumers. “They don’t have farmhouse kitchens, they have stainless-steel kitchens.”
That blond wood coffee tables and Sub-Zero refrigerators are on the minds of America car designers is a very promising thing. And it’s proving effective. From tiny details to wholesale design reinterpretations, American automobiles are — against all odds — looking better and better. Setting aside matters like performance or resale value, American car design is reaching a point at which it can turn a few heads. Or at least, the head of a 30-something female Manhattan resident who has no need for a car and only a simmering urge to own a chrome-lined vintage roadster.
After a few summer road trips and tagging along with a car shopper, I was surprised to find a new attention to design and luxury on the part of American automotive companies. Sedans are shifting toward boxy, thick heft and away from sloping, curvy drudgery; across the brands, front ends call to mind double-cheeseburgers rather than sliding boards. Interiors are more sumptuous than ever as a result of greater emphasis on craftsmanship and detail.
And it couldn’t come a moment too soon.The domestic auto industry has been bedeviled by global competitors producing better cars cheaper — and cheaper cars cheaper. Henry Ford’s mass production line allowed Americans to create volume, but the idea of producing cars that dazzle was lost along the way. By the evidence on the road — and coming to showrooms this fall — form matters again. At the heart of this renewal is not just better design, but some serious thinking about who American car buyers are and what they’ll spend their money on.
In 2006, Lincoln, a brand that has been dominated for decades by the Town Car, looked into its design vault and revived a name from the ’30s: the Zephyr, to be renamed the MKZ this year. In creating this car, the design team kept in mind its consumer: the “self-made optimist.”
“This consumer is looking for the next achievement,” the group chief designer at Ford, Susan Lampinen, said. “It’s an earned reward.”
The MKZ (from about $30,000) is not an exercise in ultra luxury, but it is designed for a consumer more concerned with elegance than flash. How does that translate into design terms? The shape of this sedan has the chunky bulk that is the mode of the day, but it hews to the Lincoln heritage. “The waterfall grille in chrome is a Lincoln design cue,” Ms. Lampinen said. “The Zephyr is not a huge vehicle. We’re going after proportion. We wanted to keep it honest, straightforward, yet refined at the same time.”
The spacious interior of the Zephyr was designed in black or cream and perhaps does even more to engage the luxury buyer than the exterior. In the short time I drove this car, I didn’t really want to get out of it. “We want to give an upgraded, softer leather. It’s a wonderful sensory experience,” Ms. Lampinen said.
The MKZ adds up to a car that makes a statement without going over the top. And its 2007 model comes at a time when its parent company, Ford, is considering selling off its higher–end lines including Aston Martin and Jaguar. Which puts Lincoln’s marketing ideas into strategic perspective. “We don’t have to show off,” Ms. Lampinen said. “We’re not Cadillac. We’re not Lexus. We’re not BMW.”
The minds at Cadillac, coincidentally, have a similar American in mind. According to the global marketing director for Cadillac, Liz Vanzura, the brand’s target consumer is the “perpetual striver. These are people who hit one goal, and go to the next.”
Cadillac has a modern sedan for every step that striver makes. The DTS (from $41,170), which made its debut in 2005, brought the legacy of the DeVille to a more contemporary design. The CTS (from $29, 660) lends a bit of sporty zip to a luxury sedan — and if you keep an eye out in Manhattan, the CTS and DTS cars roll by with the approximate frequency of taxi cabs. The STS (from $42,020), however, offers the buyer who believes in Cadillac as a symbol of American luxury a way to rule the road. Intended to compete with BMW and Mercedes sedans, the STS is unabashed in style and substance.
But Cadillac is also offering more to those who want to express their affluence by having something that few others have. “Luxury is about exclusivity,” the product director for Cadillac, John Howell, said. “It gets into an emotional realm. You’re selling emotion, but the physical thing has to support the emotion.”
To that end in the coming year, 200 units of the sporty convertible XLR (from $75,000) will be available in limited-edition colors and wheel design. The access to such exclusive choices is meant to fuel the notion of personalization. “Cars are almost expressions of yourself. It’s like an accessory or a handbag,” Ms. Vanzura said.
In addition, the Cadillac V series — which features the super-charged V-8 engine — will be made with a new attention to craftsmanship. The engines of the XLR-V (from $100,000) and STS-V (from $76,740) are each built by a single operator, who gives the finished product his signature. The leather interiors will also be given a hand-made emphasis; surfaces such as the dashboard, wheel, and levers are wrapped in hand-cut leather applied manually to the interior.
If there is a leader in the race to come up with good design that engages the senses, it is Chrysler, which blazed a path with the Plymouth Prowler and then the Chrysler PT Cruiser. It now produces a variety of models that stand out on the road, such as the Chrysler 300, the Sebring, and the Crossfire. In some ways, good design sells itself, but there’s also an art to it. “The luxury customer is a savvy customer. They’ll look for the features. Premium engines, grouping of features,” a vice president of design at Chrysler, Ralph Gilles, said.
To that end, the 300 sedan (from $34,000) was designed for maximum flexibility in the details — which attracts a buyer who want to personalize the purchase. But its real marketing value is that the sedan can be labeled “affordable luxury.” Even by adding on the 5.70 HEMI engine (a package that includes a tortoise-shell stearing wheel), the 300 tops out around $40,000. “Some people will buy the 300 and that’s it. Others will put bigger wheels on it. A color could totally change its feeling. I see them as canvas,” Mr. Gilles said.
And that ability to be all things reflects the market. “In America, there’s such a variety. There are people who don’t want to flaunt their wealth, but there are people who the first $100,000 they make, they want to flaunt it,” Mr. Gilles said.
To my eyes, however, the Crossfire has the most visual dynamism of any model on the lot. If anything could get my mind off a certain 1989 Mercedes convertible I sat in recently, this is the car. With its sloping boat tail roof, speed lines, and ridge that runs along the door to the back fender, the Crossfire looks like good times on wheels. “It’s totally unexpected in a car of that size to have that much design,” Mr. Gilles said.
But the real issue is that it is totally unexpected for American cars to have that much design. If all things are cyclical, the auto industry has finally entered an era of attention to form as well as function. It’s about time.