The round "aero" shape is out and the sharp "edge" look is in.

That's the gist of it when predicting what exterior car and light-truck designs will look like by the turn of the century. Is there a middle ground where "aero" and "edge" combine for aesthetic and functional appeal? The answer depends on who you ask.

What's certain is that automotive design is on the brink of a renaissance - one full of distinctiveness and diversity. The fodder for this styling rebirth is the drive by automakers to create brand identity in the marketplace. And the first things to go are the generic jelly bean shapes of today's cars, the boxy bulges of trucks, and the milk crate style of sport/utility vehicles (SUVs).

That's clearly evident to Carl L. Olsen, chairman of transportation design at Detroit's respected Center for Creative Studies. Mr. Olsen points to photographs of concept vehicles in his office. Designed by his most recent graduates, there's not a jelly bean in the bunch.

As he identifies the sharp angles, creases and folds - all cues for what's called "edge design" - Mr. Olsen boldly predicts that the aerodynamically shaped round car is dead. "The (`96) Ford Taurus represents the last of the really soft-form cars," he maintains. "It's like the `59 Cadillac, which (marked) the end of fins."

The design guru says that increasingly we're going to see combinations of clearly defined "edges" on full-form cars. That may sound like crystal-ball gazing, but two facts tend to support Mr. Olsen's view. His top students are not driving cabs somewhere; most of them have design jobs in the automotive industry. And in any case, edge design is, in a subtle form, already here.

Mercedes-Benz AG's SLK roadster and Vision A are "edge" designs. So is Acura's CL-X sports coupe. Commercial versions of all of these concept cars are now in various stages of production. The current Buick Riviera has distinct creases on top of each fender that run the length of the car. It's a combination of "edge" and round styling.

"This is a time when companies are striving for a different look," says David Hackett, studio director at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Calty Design Center in Newport Beach, CA. "For a while we were accused of cars looking alike. But now there's a big effort to be different, to create your own identity, and that means varied (styling) directions."

Chuckling at his "rare" agreement with Toyota, Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International in La Jolla, CA, says "there's about a billion different kinds of round and a billion different kinds of square." As one example, he says the Infiniti J30 and the `96 Taurus have extremely round designs, yet look totally different.

Although Mr. Hirshberg and others don't think Ford plowed any new ground with the radically redesigned Taurus, he says the car's interior is an area where Ford designers pushed the envelope and that Nissan intends to respond.

"We are renewed in our vigor to challenge the engineering folks to start thinking about rearranging some of those components according to human needs, rather than the needs of cables and coiling and electronics," he says.

Indeed, many designers think the interior of tomorrow's cars is where the next design battle will be fought. And Taurus, with it's elliptical interior mimicking its exterior, is now out front in that fight.

"Habitating inside the vehicle - that's incredibly important these days," says Ronald Hill, chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, traditionally the leading supplier of automotive designers.

The exterior design of a car will attract people into the showroom, but the interior layout often is the clincher. What's more, some designers think well-executed interiors can be the ticket to winning repeat buyers.

"Is it comfortable, does it meet their needs, is it functional, and above all does it give them a good feeling about owning the vehicle?" asks Mr. Hill. "That's the long-term clincher."

Car interiors have come a long way from the days when they were sparse, hard, unfriendly and embellished with chrome. Today, they have much of the same equipment that's found in the average family room: People want the comfort of their homes in their cars.

Even with all that, says one designer, interiors have become "static." But that's about to change. Diagnostic systems, navigational equipment, communications gear (faxes, phones and voice controls) will spur miniaturization and creativity. In other words, more controls will have to be housed in roughly the same amount of space.

Interior designers will have to fight for every millimeter, and they'll have to package it well, too, or risk falling behind competitors. Contrast the cohesive design of Taurus with the `95 Riviera. In Buick's case, the car's interior was designed independently of the exterior. Thus, while the exterior folks tapped into their imaginations to create a futuristic looking car, the interior stylists went back to the 1950s to get design cues from old Buicks.

That results in a mismatch between the inside and outside of the car, but a GM design executive says the new-for-'95 Riv is the last car done that way. Under GM's new brand manager/vehicle line executive system just now going into place, one person on the brand design team will be responsible for both interior and exterior design.

GM is not alone in this design schizophrenia. U.S.-based studios of Japanese manufacturers are in a real pickle. Design reflects the mood of the society and culture in which it takes place. Obviously, the creations of American-based stylists' for Japanese automakers reflect the mood in the U.S. But the approval for what's actually produced comes from the parent company in Japan, where the mood can be and is now radically different.

That's the only logical explanation for why Japanese manufacturers missed the U.S. market so badly with the current renditions of the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra and Mitsubishi 3000GT.

All of these sports coupes were upgraded in performance and given sleek designs. They went on sale in the U.S. in the early `90s, right in the face of a recession - one in which a lot of the buyers of high performance sports cars, affluent, male, white-collar professionals, lost their jobs.

However, the super coupes were conceptualized in the late 80s during the heyday of Japan's bubble economy. And they reflect the brashness and the confidence of those times in that country. But because of the pragmatism and change in tastes that the last recession spawned in the U.S., in the 95 model year only 20,019 of these world class sports coupes were sold here.

"What you have is American designers feeling both the rebirth and some confidence in (this) economy and culture, and simultaneously feeling the conservatism and caution of the parent companies (in Japan)," says Nissan's Mr. Hirshberg.

The confidence-shattering economic conditions in Japan almost guarantee conservative designs from Japanese manufacturers. The first barometer will be Toyota Motor Corp.'s new Camry, which will debut in the U.S. next year as a `97 model.

The cautious but confident mood in the U.S. suggests aggressive designs coming from The Big Three.

Ford Motor Co. already has signaled it intends to stick with the soft look. Although the `96 Taurus is revolutionary, it is an evolution of the curves that are evident on the `95 Contour/Mystique, `96 Explorer SUV and the `96 F]50 pickup truck, as well as Lincoln's redesigned `95 Continental.

The market has yet to see which design direction General Motors Corp. is headed in, but some hints can be gotten from Riviera, Oldsmobile's Aurora and spy photos, all of which suggest GM is leaning toward the "edge" look.

A change in corporate philosophy can also impact design. Mercedes-Benz AG's new E-Class sedan sports a radical, for Mercedes, front end - vertically set, oval headlights instead of rectangular ones. Ralph Fischer, Mercedes' U.S. product manager, says that "we wanted something different, fresh and innovative." Mercedes also wants to attract younger buyers so it has pegged its youth campaign to "edge design hard lines creating sharp angles for its SLK roadster and A car.

But Chrysler designers say first set up the vehicle's architecture. And for the folks under the Pentastar, that means cab forward - their windshield extended, wheels at the comer style.

"We're talking about the personality of the car, the stance of it," says David C. McKinnon, a design chief in Chrysler's product design office. "I don't know that everybody has figured that out."

Chrysler has also figured out the use of common sense in its concept vehicles. It produced the Viper RT/10, its GTS cousin is in production and, as one official says, "the worst kept secret in the industry" is that Chrysler is taking a long, hard look at producing the Plymouth Prowler, a modern-day hotrod. They're all straight productions, with few external changes, of concept vehicles.

Although the industry is always glued on the coming styles of cars, Jack Crain, another Chrysler design chief, observes: "I worry about whether the car is ever going to be what it was to us at one time," that is the dominant, personal transportation vehicle. Minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs now account for four out of 10 vehicles sold in the U.S., and sales continue to increase.

Yet the styling of light trucks is still in its infancy. Tom Matano, executive vice president of research and design for Mazda Motor Corp., likens today to post-World War II. When automakers got back to their core business, there was an explosion of car designs, bright colors, two tones, chrome, coupes, convertibles, fins and station wagons.

Mr. Matano thinks the same thing will happen with pickups. "Trucks used to be a tradesman's vehicle, so the box was more important than the cab," he says. "But in the last five years the truck has been pronounced as privately owned motor transportation; now the cab is more important than the box."

Already, there's growing variety in trucks. Dodge's Ram truck broke the boxy stereotype with its bold, long-haul rig styling. Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Toyota are answering with more aesthetic truck designs of their own.

And there's more to come. With the preponderance of young people in their early 20s driving subcompact SUVs and small pickups. Mr. McKinnon wonders where they will go when they decide to switch. It's unlikely these urbane city dwellers are going to opt for 4-door family sedans.

The Plymouth Back Pack and Hyundai Motor America's HCD-III, both concept vehicles introduced this year at the Detroit auto show, echo Mr. Matano's cab-vs.-box theory. The Back Pack's cab can be turned into a mobile office with space for a laptop computer or fax machine. And the box is meant to haul equipment for play, not work.

The HCD-III has a slide down top, sport coupe interior, and features jump seats that turn it into a 2+2. As the next millennium approaches, these types of vehicles seem certain to move from concept to commercial production.

Although minivan design is much improved, what further styling innovations can you give a small bus? "We're getting together pretty soon to answer that question," says Mr. McKinnon, "We're just catching our breath from the last one."

What Chrysler wants to do next time around is improve both the look and functionality of its market-leading minivan. Included in those discussions no doubt will be women - not because they're the pre-dominant drivers of minivans, but because they're on the design team.

The impact of female drivers has been subtle, like adjustable shoulder belts and driver's seats that slide forward more than they used to. Women, in general, are shorter than men. But cars are not designed to cater to women per se, nor will they be. That's been tried before and it failed miserably. "Women don't like that," says one designer.

But their influence will be felt across the market because more women are being hired as designers and stylists. In fact, there's a concentrated, industry-wide effort to diversify automotive design studios.

"We've made an effort to hire more female designers," says Jerry P. Palmer, executive director of design for GM's North American Operations. "We also have a very diverse design organization relative to cultures and race. It's really provided a greater opportunity for all of us to open our minds and take the blinders off."

As the cross-pollination of ideas occurs in design studios, computers have taken the place of sketch ads as the method of communication. The consensus among automotive stylists is that electronic design aides are here to stay.

In fact, the technology is racing to keep up with the many applications designers want to apply it to. Three dimensional surfacing is one area where computers are actually behind the curve. Holography is another. One automaker wants the technology to make the projected images life-sized.

Although feelings vary on how much creativity will be assumed by automotive design computers, most agree that they do save time and thus money. So does the inclusion of engineering and manufacturing staff up front in the design process.

"Amen," says Mr. Hirshberg. "Many of my colleagues disagree. There's the feeling in many places that facts and obstacles get in the way of creativity. But creativity begins where there is an obstacle. It's not that design must play by the rules. Design must know the rules and then play with them."

And with the advent of engineering and manufacturing contributing to design to facilitate assembly, fast approaching is the same tandem's input into design for disassembly of tomorrow's cars and trucks.

"Disassembly issues (recycling) during the next decade will give us new avenues to take beyond round shapes or sharp edges; another new horizon," says Mr. Matano. "I'm anxious to come up with something that we should tap into."

No single car reveals everything about the corporate culture, observes one designer. But look at the product lineup of Chrysler, or Toyota, or Nissan, or Ford, and it paints a revealing portrait of the tenor, the tone of how much confidence or lack of it, how much courage or lack of it, and how much integration of thought exist within the company at a given time.

There are variances in corporate direction, financial stability and strength of economies in the home markets of the world's automakers. There's also an accelerating trend to differentiate car lines for brand identification.

Mix all of that with the expectations of a multicultural society as the 21st Century begins, and five years from now U.S. consumers will have a dazzling smorgasbord of distinctively styled cars to choose from.

Center for Creative Studies' Top Draws

They'll give shape to cars for us in 21st Century

Mike Pevovar: CCS graduate now at GM Design. This is a deliberate attempt by the designer to seat three people comfortably" in a Honda Civic package. It's noteworthy because of the extensive use of glass, which is 100% feasible.

John Song: CCS graduate now freelance automotive designer. Japanese manufacturers have yet to market a pickup truck with the macho flair needed to attract traditional buyers. Designer creates Toyota Range 2002 to answer the criticism. It's a combination of soft forms and taut planes.

Matt Anchor: Senior at CCS Design cues for this concept start with Maserati's traditional logo, which is spikey with acute angles and serifs. Triangular surfaces appear in unexpected places, strengthening the tension in the overall composition of design. Phil Mason: CCS graduate now at Ford Design. A three-seat, mid-engine pickup truck. The interlocking volumes and planes create a striking tensional relationship, The designer ties the vehicle together with a chrome, tubular bumper that appears to project where needed.

Mark Allen: CCS graduate now at Chrysler Design. Constraints as styling elements. Toyota 2000 addresses the problem of expansion/contraction of plastic body panels, at extreme hot and cold temperatures, by using overlapping planes on doors, hood and trunk lid.

Jeff Garstecki: CCS graduate now at GM Advanced Design. This designer logged onto Internet and asked: "What kind of car would you like?" That led to a turbine-powered sports car It's desconstructivist and has a rumble seat behind the detachable roof and in front of the trunk.