It's been nearly five years since General Motors Corp. moved to its new World Headquarters in Detroit's Renaissance Center. But critics, and many GM insiders, have been waiting more than 20 years for a renaissance in its vehicle designs.

Despite some dramatic concept-vehicle unveilings and future-production decisions in recent years that provide strong clues as to where it's heading, GM can claim few design breakthroughs. OK, so Corvette's a winner. It has been for decades. But where do we go from there?

Where GM is going won't be fully tested until the design and engineering organizations it established in 1995 get a crack at proving themselves.

The first big test begins this fall when Cadillac introduces the 2002 CTS, the “small” Caddie that replaces the slow-selling Catera imported from GM's Adam Opel AG subsidiary in Germany since the mid-'90s. A light makeover of Opel's Omega, Catera was a stopgap to save cash until GM could gear up to produce an entry-level Cadillac in North America.

The CTS is built on GM's all-new Sigma rear-drive platform. A CTS “roadster” and a redesigned and re-engineered Seville will arrive in the 2003-2004 time frame, both Sigma-based.

And other results of its six-year design revival thrust are beginning to materialize. For example, GM recently introduced attractive new midsize sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) that are much more individually distinct than the models they replace; its redesigned GMT fullsize pickups and derivatives have been rolling out since 1999 with some success; Saturn and Buick are gettig their first sport/utilities; and the pipeline is jammed. “We'll be introducing 100 vehicles during the next two or three years, 25 outside the United States,” says Wayne K. Cherry, vice president-design and portfolio development. “We don't want to copy anyone else; we want to go in our own direction.” And that, he implies, means no more boring cars but, rather, a look that says this is American and proud of it.

A 39-year GM veteran, Mr. Cherry has directed its 1,200-person North America-based design group since November 1992. Prior to that he spent nearly 21 years in GM's European operations, the final eight as Opel's design chief.

When he took over, Mr. Cherry inherited a batch of mostly stodgy lookalike passenger cars that reflected a long design drought in part caused by hewing to mandatory federal standards, GM cash shortages and a series of often chaotic reorganizations that hampered creativity.

Jerry Palmer, 58, a 35-year GM veteran and now executive director of design, candidly admits that GM plunged from the design heights it reached from the '50s to '70s during the last two decades. “Yes, over the years we probably lost some momentum, but the gap also has closed,” he says. “I think we hit a dormant period in the '80s when we downsized the cars (to reduce weight and improve mileage under increasingly tougher federal fuel economy standards). We cloned a lot of vehicles and lost some identity, but we still did some good things.”

Like everyone else at GM interviewed for this article, Mr. Palmer is convinced better days lie ahead, partly because engineering and process improvements are providing more bulletproof platforms for designers to work with. “You've got to have quality, reliability and safety — that's the ante now,” he says.

Speed also is a critical factor. GM used to produce concept vehicles mainly to stir excitement. Now, with the industry pushing to develop vehicles within 18 months, shaving about six months off development time, GM's show cars are becoming “indicators of where we want to take our designs,” says Mr. Palmer.

To many critics, talk of a design renaissance at GM remains simply that — until it delivers a string of winners. Perhaps typical is Jim Hall, automotive analyst at AutoPacific consultants in Troy, MI, who has worked in design at Mazda and GM. “It's too early to tell whether GM has turned the corner” in design, he says. “There's a good chance they can turn it around; there's actually some stuff that says they can be consistent within the brands. Yeah, there's some light at the end of the tunnel; there's not a train coming from the other way.”

At 63, Mr. Cherry is close to winding up his GM career. He'll reach mandatory retirement age-65 in September next year. Speculation has persisted for years that he'd leave early, but GM management has stood behind him and he personally has said he'd stick it out.

That said, who's his likely successor? GM insiders give two people an edge, with several long shots also in the running. The two are Edward T. Welburn, 50, a Philadelpia native who joined GM in 1972, spent most of his career at Oldsmobile with a stint at Opel, and was named executive director of the GM Corporate Brand Center in 1998; and Anne Asensio, 38, who moved to GM last October from Renault SA in her native France, as executive director of the Brand Character Center. Ms. Asensio spent a year at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies and worked in the 1980s with Chrysler on the entry level Jeep JJ (later scrapped) during her 14-year Renault career. She is responsible for all seven divisional brand design centers, and is best known for her creative input on a trio of Renault vehicles: the small Twingo, midsize Clio and, foremost, the Scenic minivan.

Whoever succeeds Mr. Cherry will inherit a team he has been building since the mid-1990s. In just over a year he has hired 100 designers, including some stars in their own right. Among them: Brian Nesbitt, 32, who designed Chrysler's remarkably successful PT Cruiser, and left after an eight-year Chrysler career to join GM last April as Chevrolet's chief designer; Frank Saucedo, 39, recruited from Volkswagen AG where he worked in Germany for eight years on Audi and VW concept vehicles, to head its new California design studio that opened in January 2000; and Michael Maver, also 39, a German native who spent 14 years at Mercedes-Benz, where he helped design the Smart city car and SLK roadster, and departed last year to head design for GM's Saab unit in Sweden.

Other top divisional designers are also relatively young. Pontiac's Phil Zak is 36; Cadillac's Thomas G. Kearns, who is 37, did the final design work on the CTS; and Buick's David Lyon, who designed its much acclaimed Bengal concept sports car, is 32. Since GM is going all out to reduce its geezer image and bring in more youthful buyers, obviously it is relying on these younger lions to deliver the goods.

Mr. Cherry's strategy clearly has been to bring aboard designers who also have diverse experience, both in the kinds of vehicles they've worked on and, in many cases, their global scope.

“When you stop to think of it, North America is really a global market,” he says. “The best stuff from around the world is sold here. GM always had international talent, but now we have more depth.”

Moreover, GM hasn't had any trouble recruiting high-potential designers, he says, perhaps partly because after decades in the design doldrums it now has become a Mecca for those wishing to make their marks.

“We show them our concept vehicles — what we're working on, what our thinking is,” says Mr. Cherry, “plus they can see how excited our people here are about what we've got coming.”

Apparently it's working. Says Ms. Asensio: “We built a design team at Renault in which we were all completely involved; we think we brought design leadership back to Renault. Then one day our work was mostly done. GM called at the right time; it was time for a new challenge.” Adds Mr. Lyon: “I'd like people restoring some of the cars we're working on 25 years from now.” For Mr. Nesbitt, whose family traditionally has owned GM cars, the Chevy job is a ripe plum. “Why did I move to GM? Because Chevrolet is so woven into our culture” that he has a chance to make a significant impact. “Chevrolet's brand identity of late has not been translated” to reflect the nameplate's attributes, he says, and that's what he'll try to inject.

Interviews with more than a dozen GM designers and those close to the vehicles strongly hint that what it's seeking is a distinctly new American look that may borrow some cues and thinking from competitors, but that will reflect how Americans live, spend their money, constantly adapt to new technology and take risks. “For every 1,000 who start a business, only one is successful,” observes Mr. Nesbitt. “Invention is where we make our marks in the United States. Look at Silicon Valley.”

Although GM's styling malaise is not entirely of his making, Mr. Cherry has weathered the brunt of criticism. That has focused most recently on the chunky looking 2001 Pontiac Aztek crossover vehicle, especially its kinky rear-end styling and overdone cladding.

He makes no apologies about Aztek, echoing a familiar refrain at GM that, while controversial, the stubby vehicle symbolizes design risks GM must take to compete. Says Pontiac's Mr. Zak: “Aztek is definitely a love it or hate it type of vehicle — definitely a bold statement.” But he tacitly admits GM may have gone too far in jolting the eyeballs; it's presently being tweaked to answer the nitpickers, including adapting larger wheels to improve its stance.

At least folks are talking about Aztek. Not much else in GM's current conservatively styled passenger-car stable gets notice. Oldsmobile's Alero and Intrigue are exceptions, but GM is now phasing out the venerable division. The fullsize Cadillac DeVille introduced in 2000 represented a major design departure, but against stiff foreign competition it has lit few fires; during this year's first half DeVille sales trailed 2000 by 21%, roughly the same decline registered by the entire division.

Meanwhile, GM is eliciting enthusiasm in vehicles already given the green light for production. The SSR sporty pickup, reminiscent of a 1950s-vintage Chevy pickup, has gotten raves in concept form at auto shows around the world. It's coming as a 2003 model. The Cadillac Evoq — the name may change — high-end, high-performance 2-seater patterned along the lines of the Mercedes SLK — also wins widespread praise. It moves into production next year at the Bowling Green, KY, Corvette plant.

A tour of the Cadillac Brand Center, where a final version of the Evoq is displayed, indicates designers have toned down the macho wedge-shaped front styling a tad. Still, it won't be easily mistaken as a symbol of where Cadillac design is heading. CTS styling also exemplifies the division's new identity, which is traced to its decision to combine aesthetics (art) with engineering and high-tech features (science).

Other new designs set for production during the next few years include a revamped, 5-door version of the Chevy Malibu and the Hummer H2 super SUV.

Mr. Cherry won't confirm whether other recent concept vehicles have gotten a corporate go-ahead, but President and Chief Executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. repeatedly has emphasized GM intends to recapture the design pinnacle it held for decades. During the 1990s, GM repeatedly delayed, postponed or cancelled new models and since has killed several nameplates such as Buick's Riviera, Cadillac's Eldorado and, of course, Oldsmobile.

If an economic downturn or change of heart don't intrude, a bevy of spiffy designs may make it into production. The Buick Bengal, Pontiac's all-wheel-drive REV sporty coupe developed with Suzuki Motor Corp., and the Chevy Borrego youth-oriented sportster from Mr. Saucedo's California studio all have tongues salivating in GM's design ranks. And all have been praised at auto shows and in consumer clinics.

The turning point to what's coming from GM can be traced to 1996 when the design group was realigned to more closely differentiate its seven brands. That move coincided with organizing new engineering and product development teams led by VLEs, or vehicle line executives.

Under this scheme the divisions and design groups establish what the product should be to meet the marketplace and the VLEs deliver the technology and hardware.

Jim Taylor, a Canadian-born engineer with a dual degree in business, was named Sigma platform Vehicle Line Executive (VLE) in 1996 and has shepherded the CTS into production. Before that Mr. Taylor spent seven years on GM's purchasing staff.

A 21-year GM veteran, he says his purchasing background helps “because you're a project manager, just like a VLE; it wasn't compartmentalized. I moved around the car a lot (as a purchasing executive). I haven't had to relearn a lot of things.”

The new North American small Cadillac was already designed when, following a Christmas 1997 “blitz,” Caddie honed its art and science theme. Although the basic wheels, chassis and other hardware remained the same, two “swat teams” vied for a new design, Mr. Taylor recalls. Then ideas from both were incorporated, and three months later the redesigned CTS took shape.

Although initially the CTS will offer only V-6 performance, “It'll be Autobahn capable.” he boasts. “We think we've got the ride and handling of a BMW.” But the price won't go up, he says: Somewhere in the $35,000 to $40,000 range. And unlike Evoq, SSR and other potential limited-production niche vehicles, CTS will see higher volumes, with 30,000 units planned the first year.

The CTS purposely aims to appeal to tech-savvy Americans. “We wanted bold styling. What else can I say? Most of our competitors are more conservative, so we didn't go after anybody else's designs,” says Mr. Taylor.

While GM's VLE teams concentrated on developing new vehicles for production, Mr. Cherry organized his Design Center to methodically pave the way for GM's future designs.

It starts with John Taylor, 61, (no kin to Jim), an Australian who joined GM in 1964 as a GM-Vauxhall designer and spent 18 years at Opel, where he worked closely with Mr. Cherry. Mr. Taylor is executive director of Portfolio Design Strategies and Advanced Portfolio Exploration, commonly referred to as APEX inside GM.

“It all starts here,” says Mr. Taylor, whose responsibilities include GM's British design studios headed by Simon Cox, Mr. Saucedo's California studio, and the “innovation zone,” a skunk works based on the World War II Manhattan atomic bomb project that zeroes in on specific solutions to design and engineering challenges in production vehicles. It's directed by John A. Shettler, a 38-year GM veteran.

“We're all invention up front,” says Mr. Taylor. “Our goal is to execute world class quality — on time.”

APEX researches the big picture — strategic trends globally. “It's the first time we've pulled together designers and analysts to look ahead. We want to be smart up front rather than go through time-consuming testing,” says Mr. Taylor. “We look at societal, technical, environmental, political, economic and geopolitical trends and trade agreements, then translate this into what buyers will want.” Societal trends, for example, include population age and diversity, income and the like. Direct contact with minorities (blacks, Asians, Hispanics), for example, is part of APEX's agenda.

Right now APEX has 100 concept vehicles under consideration and 480 total in its “bank.” There's an “inspiration board” where Post-Its, scribbled notes, clips and other ideas are tacked to stir creativity. “It's totally free form,” says Mr. Taylor. “We look at 50 ideas at one time and prioritize those down to 20 to show to Wayne” and other key executives. These, he says, “are actual options for the corporation.”

The Chevy SSR, which he describes as an example of “Funkstalgia,” began life as an idea at APEX. And GM is not ruling out other retro niche vehicles — and certainly not design cues long associated with its brands but lately lost in the shuffle. Chevy, for example, plans to continue reviving round rear lamps, as designed into the 2000 Impala and Monte Carlo, says Mr. Nesbitt. Buick will incorporate vertical grilles and, selectively, front-fender portholes, with which it has been historically identified, says Mr. Lyon. And Cadillac will maintain its “egg crate” grilles and vertical tail lamps, says Mr. Kearns. In short, each brand will push for differentiation, striving to bury GM's dead-ringer reputation — designing vehicles for targeted buyers.

Visibility also plays a major role in APEX's acitivities: Photos and specifications of most cars and trucks GM and its overseas subsidiaries produce are displayed as well as those of its affiliated companies (Isuzu Motors Co., Fiat Auto SpA, Suzuki) and competitors.

And then there are actual fullsize concept vehicles such as the Borrego developed by Mr. Saucedo's 26-person studio in North Hollywood, close to movie studios and other trendy thinking in furniture, architecture and materials. “Our job is to offer alternatives to what's being done elsewhere at GM; we're the beginning of the funnel,” he says.

The California studio has a global flare. Besides Mr. Saucedo's VW background, designers and modelers hale from Germany and Korea and also include a Japanese American. A “partnership studio” includes designers from Adam Opel AG, Suzuki, Fiat, Alfa Romeo “or anyone else in GM who wants to work with us. That way we get leverage between the groups,” he says.

After concepts leave APEX, Mr. Welburn's group takes over. Its job is to find a likely home for the stream of concepts flowing through APEX and overseas studios.

The key to Mr. Welburn's contribution is math-based design technology that eliminates the time-consuming and costly need for traditional built-up clay models. Here designers and sculptors sketch on computer terminals, their work projected on huge screens as background music plays overhead. “Before we had clay sculptors, designers and engineers working separately; now everyone works shoulder to shoulder on new concepts,” or ideas emanating primarily from APEX, Mr. Welburn explains. “If it's nostalgia, we'll do several iterations. The SSR is a good example. Our early concern was: If we put everything on computers, there'd be no emotion, but that hasn't happened.”

Product analysts also participate. “If we're looking at a large truck, they'll go to construction sites, ask questions and make sketches,” he says. In short, his folks seek out the best combination of attributes and content for specific applications and, working with Ms. Asensio's brand designers, develop concept vehicles to test the waters. “Our brands have a heritage, and we want to exploit that,” Mr. Welburn says.

To put his group's work into perspective, Mr. Welburn's “war room” charts development of production and show vehicles worldwide, but its main focus is on North American show vehicles developed by GM and its affiliates.

Ms. Asensio's seven “brand character” studios (each car and truck division) are charged with the tough challenge of vehicle differentiation. At the entrance to each, showcases and furnishings are stocked with items such as watches, toasters, radios and other industrial artifacts identified with the unique design direction each nameplate is taking. A Kitchen Aid mixer and a Tiger Woods golf bag greet you at the Buick brand center, for example. Call it creative ambience.

Mr. Cherry has whittled down each brand's character to a word or two. Buick, graceful; Pontiac, athletic; Cadillac, art and science; Chevrolet, spirited function; Saturn, friendly; Chevy trucks, yes, like a rock; GMC trucks, industrial precision; and Hummer, extreme capability.

It's up to Ms. Asensio's designers to shape vehicles that exude these qualities and lock in designs before the projects head to studios that prepare them for production.

A strong proponent of the team approach and a stickler on the quality side (see WAW — July '01, p.76), Ms. Asensio says she's seeking “harmony and balance” in GM's designs.

GM historically has separated interior and exterior design function, but from now on it will combine the two, starting “from the inside out.” Plus, suppliers will play a greater role in designing interiors for future GM vehicles (see WAW — July '01, p.45).

Ms. Asensio says GM designs should take into account the differences between the sexes. Women buy half of the new vehicles sold, which is reason enough to meet their needs. But it's more than that, she says. “Women definitely focus more on functionality than men, and they are tight on details and perceived quality and safety,” she says. “They have a much greater emotional connection with their cars. Men look at ‘How I look to others’ in a vehicle. They're always in a domination mode. Men look at how much power the engine has. Women don't want a ‘compromise’ convertible, but that's not related to power” under the hood.

“Success at GM in the future will be our people, and communication is a key element,” she explains. “GM is a big corporation, but just a few people can create change. My job is brand differentiation; that's going to help us define products in a distinctive way, knowing that we have common parts.”

It probably will take Ms. Asensio and her brand design chiefs four or five years to show their stuff when the all-new models they're developing hit dealer showrooms. Shorter-term, though, they'll be tweaking designs already approved to build greater “brand character.”

For decades from the '30s to the '70s, GM dominated as the source of many of the industry's most innovative and unique designs. Each nameplate stood out on its own, distinct from every other in GM's lineup. A Chevy was a Chevy, a Caddie a Caddie. There was little blurring and a lot of brand loyalty.

Back then, GM captured almost half of the U.S. market, a big burly creature with cash to spare and design and engineering leaders who loved nothing more than flexing their creative muscles.

Several major forces converged on U.S.-based automakers, hitting GM hardest, to drastically change their products and their designs: Federal regulations; the rising tide of the Japanese automakers, first as exporters to the U.S. and then with expanding North American production facilities; increasingly strong competition from Europe, predominantly Germany, and South Korea; an explosion in SUV and niche vehicles; and tougher, more affluent and enlightened buyers who — with ample cash and practically unlimited choices in the world's most open market — demanded higher quality, reliability, vehicle content and aesthetically appealing cars and trucks.

GM couldn't, or didn't deliver. As one result, its U.S. market share has dwindled to 29%, down from 45% in 1980 when the glitch-marred look-alikes first surfaced.

Chrysler, Jaguar, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Volkswagen AG, Renault and Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. have mounted product revivals based significantly on appealing aesthetics. “Right now our cars are too much like commodities,” observes Mr. Lyon, who vows to create a “a whole new look for Buick.” He adds: “We're going to increase the pulse rate.”

With the average Buick buyer in his 60s — and aging faster than the total population — that obviously would help.