It's bold. It's beautiful. It's a bust. Worse yet, a Dustbuster.
Corp. set out to make a real statement when it introduced its dramatic plastic-bodied all-purpose vehicle (APV) minivans in 1989. To its chagrin, it found that utility sells minivans -- not styling.
Even though GM contracted with Pininfarina Spa, -- the Italian firm famous for designing Ferrari cars -- to do much of the design and engineering work, the van-buying public never fell in love with the APV's unique appearance.
Instead of applauding GM for developing a bold new line of people movers that weren't plain and boxy, critics attacked them for their long noses and huge front windshields. Potential buyers sat in the front seat, looked out over the long nose and one of the longest expanses of instrument panel ever created, and deemed it impossible to park.
Then some critic likened their appearance to a popular hand-held vacuum cleaner and the nickname stuck -- mercilessly. GM's sleek vision of future family transportation was branded a lowly Dustbuster.
Worse yet, the APVs' innovative steel "bird cage" frame and plastic body panel construction was considered a stunning and significant engineering achievement, but its significance was totally lost on customers.
So were the benefits of rust-proof and ding-resistant plastic body panels.
A nose bob on the Pontiac Trans Sport and Chevy Lumina in 1994 and a redesign of the IP that made it less imposing and more functional helped boost sales a little, but not enough to ever call the vans a success.
Once again, Detroit finds that innovation doesn't always sell. If it's any solace to those who stretched their imaginations and fought to make the current U-van a reality, the Cord, the Tucker, theAirflow all got stuck with funny nicknames, too. And they all bombed in the marketplace.
The new U-van team clearly learned from these mistakes. Like most new minivans, the Chevy Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Opel Sintra are designed from the inside out, with functionality and interior space needs given first priority.
The long dash was one of the first things attacked. "Some people loved the look from the outside and tolerated the look inside, but there weren't enough of them," says Norman L. Pilcher, vehicle chief engineer. "That was a factor in the development of the new architecture, a major factor up front."
Mr. Pilcher isn't fond of the "shrink wrap" term, but he says the primary design directive inside was to suck all the interior surfaces as closely and tightly to the exterior surfaces as possible to maximize every inch of interior space.
Meanwhile, the old van's interior strengths -- such as its extremely versatile modular seating arrangements -- are being enhanced further for even more versatility, including 8-passenger seating, bench-style seats and reclining seats.
Exterior styling is uninspired, but also unlikely to scare anyone off. But that's not to say it was easy.
Different regulatory and safety standards for Europe and the U.S. all had to be accommodated in one similar design, from headlights with different lenses and beam patterns to windshield wiper locations that will work equally well with either left- or right-hand drive configurations.
However, Mr. Pilcher emphasizes that although these vans will be sold throughout the world, they don't represent a one-size-fits-all "world car" philosophy.
Body architecture also is conservative on the new vans: it's a standard steel unibody that shares many basic components with GM's new W-body sedans.
Mr. Pilcher says the decision to abandon the current body structure was reached very early in the design process because of manufacturing, volume, and recyclability issues.
GM now wants to be able to build numerous different products in the same plant if it has to. The current APV construction is just too different to fit into that scheme, he says.
Furthermore, European team members warned that vehicle recyclability was becoming a huge issue in Germany, and that plastic body panels could hurt buyer appeal there. Although plastic recycling strategies continue to improve, a steel skin was considered less risky all around.