Commentary

What will cars of the future look like? Will they take on the space-age look of teardrop bodies, or resemble the sleek vehicles in futuristic movies?

Probably neither. The market likely will be small for Batmobiles with no room for the kids and trunk space limited to a pair of socks.

But vehicle stylists say changes are in the wind – or the wind tunnel, anyway. It’s about time. They say we haven’t seen many real design changes in decades.

The industry now seems on the verge of developing a thoroughly modern car both as a bold design statement and a practical matter for achieving better fuel economy from aerodynamics and such.

The industry has been in a design rut. There are basic themes with a few variations. Look at today’s top four cars, the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

“Let’s face it, they all look pretty much the same,” says Pat Schiavone, a Ford design director and a panelist during a future-design discussion before the Automotive Press Assn. in Detroit.

The time is right for vehicles to embody fresh aesthetics and incorporate modern technology, he says, calling it 21st century cool. “It is important for us to push these designs.”

Glass-bubble roofs, covered wheels, smaller fronts with cab-forward design may not be end alls, but the industry is going in that direction.

There are barriers, though. Cost is always one. Another is the relatively conservative nature of the auto industry.

Then there’s the question of whether a knock-’em-dead design will die a quick death on the dealership lot. Consumers have rejected many strikingly innovative designs, from the Chrysler Airflow of the 1930s to General Motors’ plastic-body minivan of the 1990s.

Skeptics at auto companies will look at a daring concept and say, “We need to sell 100,000 of these, can we do it?” says panelist David Marek, a Honda designer.

Creativity aside, stylists must remember they are designing cars for the Joneses, not the Jetsons. Nissan designer Kenneth Lee gets that, despite his youthful exuberance.

“At the end of the day, you are selling cars to real people,” he tells me. “We have focus-group sessions that will include a guy with three kids and a boat to tow. A teardrop, ultra-streamline design is not going to appeal to him.

“As a designer, you can’t live in a fantasy world,” Lee says.

Yet, making cars more aerodynamic “is one of the cheapest ways to achieve better fuel economy,” says Nissan designer Robert Bauer.

To that end, Schiavone says he’s been spending a lot of time in wind tunnels. “Everything will be ‘aero,’” he says of future cars. “It’s like birds; they’re all aerodynamic, but they don’t all look the same.”

There’s a limit, though. If a designer gets carried away with streamlining, the result is a “pretty ugly car,” Marek says. “Designers need to balance looks and aerodynamics.”

At this year’s New York auto show, dealer John LaSorsa looked over some super-streamlined science-project vehicles, touted for their fuel efficiency but looking weird. He questioned their functionality. In other words, no one with contemporary driving needs will buy one.

But styling is subjective, and car buyers’ tastes vary, notes dealer George Glassman of the Glassman Automotive Group in Southfield, MI.

“Look at the Scion xB,” he tells me. “It looks bizarre, like a box on wheels. Yet it has an audience. Designing cars goes to who you are trying to appeal to.”

Design is an important part of whether a vehicle will have lot appeal. “But there have to be other redeeming features besides just looking good,” Glassman says.

Then there’s the phenomenon of a car looking great one day and dated the next. I loved the Plymouth Prowler when it first came out. A few years later, I thought it looked like a big bug that should be shooed away.

“It’s the boredom factor, and it can kick in fast,” Glassman says. “Styling can get stale the day a car comes out. Frankly, when it comes to new and exciting car designs, I don’t get too jacked up about anything any more.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com