Commentary

What sells cars today? There is fuel economy, engineering, electronics, performance, quality and probably a few other attributes you might name. But No.1 usually is design.

You’re probably tired of hearing the drumbeat about the importance of design. So am I, but then I ask myself, “Why isn’t the Kia Soul a Chevrolet? What would happen if it were?”

Looks are most important if an auto maker is getting ignored by potential customers. And Detroit brands certainly have been falling off a lot of shoppers’ lists, while Kia and Hyundai are winning more converts with fresh designs.

Think of some of the cars and trucks that made us run out and buy when Detroit has been down on its luck in the past: the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the first Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO.

Think of the excitement new designs caused with foreign brands, such as the Volkswagen New Beetle, Toyota Prius or the first Scion xB. They looked like nothing else on the road.

The new Kia Soul seems to be falling into this category as well. It’s practical, inexpensive, but far from ordinary. Why hasn’t Chevrolet come out with something similar?

Part of the reason is executives who have risen to the top of Detroit auto makers in recent decades traditionally are conservative, middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock- the-boat types. This was particularly evident at GM where great designs began degenerating in the 1970s.

And when executives did take a risk and failed with a mistake such as the Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle that tried to be different but was poorly executed, they became even more averse to trying something new.

Yes, overreaching with design sometimes results in failure. The Chrysler Airflow cars of the 1930s were just too aerodynamic for their time. GM’s innovative plastic-bodied APV minivans also turned off consumers with their radical design.

Of course, inventive design can’t overcome misdirected pricing or terrible quality or marketing.

And good looks, alone, can’t sustain success. There must be engineering, quality and performance. Chrysler collapsed despite the striking design of the 300 sedan and Dodge Ram pickup. Scion’s sales also have nosedived. And the VW New Beetle is almost kaput.

If Detroit is going to get back in the game, it needs exceptional design, not just good-looking cars and trucks. Every auto maker is building good-looking cars and trucks.

Detroit needs more head-turners and the kind of courage that led it to put fins on Cadillacs, portholes on Buicks and eliminate B pillars to create sexy hardtop coupes.

Sure, some consumers shy away from things that are radical or different, but the Detroit Three have plenty of safe designs to satisfy those folks.

If you need attention, exceptional design is the way to attract it fast. Detroit has shocked and surprised us with a lot of things in the past 12 months. Now it’s time to truly startle us with something good: a practical car that really turns heads.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.