Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Bob Lutz retires from General Motors Corp. at the end of the year, but his influence on vehicle design, particularly in the interiors, will be felt for years to come, says a top designer at the auto maker.

“This is Bob’s last year with us, but his influence on how General Motors develops products will really be felt for a generation,” David Lyon, executive director-interior design for North America, says at this week’s Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference held here.

An iconic industry veteran, Lutz rejoined GM as vice chairman in 2001 and assumed responsibility for global product development in 2005.

In a speech at the conference, Lyon asks the crowd to indulge “a little hero worship” with regard to Lutz.

“He is an automotive connoisseur, and has very deep convictions about the role the interior plays in the ownership experience,” Lyon says.

With many auto makers, it is rare to have “a top officer in the company” engaging designers in lengthy discussions about grain on the cover stock of an instrument panel or the ergonomics of a seat recliner. Yet, that’s what Lutz routinely has done, Lyon says.

“He really cared and understood the product,” he says. “Under his guidance and, let’s say, infectious desire for excellence, we went from, I think it’s fair to say, near the bottom of the interiors market to world-class in one product cycle.”

For context, Lyon recalls the previous-generation Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan. “On paper, this car should have been a winner,” he says, referring to an image of the car on the screen behind him. That earlier Malibu, designed before Lutz arrived, undercut the competition on price, yet boasted slightly larger dimensions.

“We talked to customers in focus groups – this is a very pragmatic customer. They told us the styling really didn’t matter. And we absolutely took their word on that,” Lyon says, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

The new Malibu, reflecting Lutz’s influence while derived from the same platform, has been a home run for GM and Chevrolet, selling at higher volumes, at an average of $3,800 more than the previous car, and winning North American Car of the Year honors, Lyon says.

And while focus-group feedback apparently did little to improve the previous Malibu, the new one had no focus group at all, he says. “Actually, it hit a focus group of one, Bob, and he loved it. It made it fast to market with a lot of clarity, and I like that model.”

He says Lutz also deserves credit for globalizing product development within the GM network of technical centers worldwide. In 2004, Lyon began a stint in the Asia/Pacific design studios in South Korea, China and Australia.

The South Korean design team, part of GM Daewoo Automotive and Technology Co., played a key role in developing the all-new Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan, now on sale in Asian and European markets. Production of the U.S. version begins in mid-2010 in Lordstown, OH.

“In Korea, it was not considered a small car,” Lyon says of the Cruze. “This is a core vehicle, and that design team wanted the vehicle to have the look, feel and character of an entry-luxury car, not a compact car. And the result is a vehicle that feels a couple notches above its price point.”

The all-new ’10 Buick LaCrosse, slated to go on sale this summer and nearing production launch in Fairfax, KS, also demonstrates the global product-development strategy hatched by Lutz.

Design studios in Shanghai and North America collaborated on the shapely new car. “The Chinese team definitely brought a very unique perspective to what Buick is,” Lyon says. “It’s a very progressive, very modern look at what a Buick could be.”

He speaks glowingly of the new sedan. “Every part of this car – the headliner, exhaust tips, steering wheel, cluster, door panel, arm rest – each one is a beautiful piece of art on its own,” Lyon says. “I really feel with this vehicle, all these elements combine to create one of the most artfully designed GM vehicles since 1960.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com