Design long has played an important role in the success of auto makers, from the dramatic tailfins of the ’59 Cadillac Eldorado to the roundish, utilitarian look of the rear-engine Volkswagen Beetle.

But as aerodynamics became more a factor in fuel economy, and consumers began gravitating toward better quality, vehicle design no longer had a starring role, watered down so much that most people had difficulty distinguishing a Toyota Camry from a Chevrolet Malibu.

Today, most light vehicles boast above-average fuel economy and top-notch quality, allowing styling to return to the forefront as the great differentiator, top automotive designers tell WardsAuto. More and more, auto makers are relying on cutting-edge exteriors to move their mainstream products in an increasingly crowded market.

A good example is the all-new ’13 Ford Fusion midsize sedan, heralded by critics for its Aston Martin-inspired fascia and sleek profile. Fusion sales jumped 17.7% in the year’s first half, compared with year-ago, to 161,146 units, according to WardsAuto data.

J Mays, Ford group vice president-design, says the Fusion, styled to appear more expensive than it is, represents the new face of Ford.

“For Fusion, we wanted a visible, efficient design,” he says. “We also wanted a refined surface language, which is hopefully apparent. It sends a strong signal (as an) aspirational vehicle.”

The Fusion’s striking design is creating opportunities for Ford in markets where it traditionally has struggled, such as fashion-conscious California and the buttoned-up East Coast. Ford says Fusion sales in California through May soared 115%, which Mays says signifies “not only are we selling a lot of cars, but to the right people.”

More Money Being Invested in Design

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler senior vice president-design, is best known for his styling of the dramatic ’05 Chrysler 300 sedan and ’14 SRT Viper sports car. Design is becoming increasingly important to top executives, who once placed little value on styling, he says.

“It’s more of a consideration by buyers, and more companies are investing more money in design,” Gilles says. “We’re also using design to differentiate more between our own brands.”

Auto makers are updating their designs more frequently, including midway through the product cycle, and such tweaks are becoming substantial.

“In the past, it was a quick little wheel change or maybe a bumper change,” Gilles says. “I think you are going to see a trend. It has already started to happen, where companies will probably do heavier midcycle enhancements. That is something we are looking at ourselves.”

Toyota long has been criticized for bland styling, but a recent edict by CEO and racing-enthusiast Akio Toyoda has pushed design to the forefront, says Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research, the North American arm of Toyota’s global design network.

“The number of brands in the marketplace is increasing and the competition is fierce,” he says. “Design is important, and you’ll see the continuation of bold design moves from Toyota and Lexus.”

Hunter admits Toyota lost its way, with cars like the Corolla becoming the poster child for boring, uninspired design. Why that occurred, he’s not exactly sure, but insists it won’t happen again.

“I think part of it was we were chasing volume, and those cars got left behind,” Hunter says. “We’re trying to recapture some of the dynamism we once had as an exciting and advanced car company.”

Auto Makers Turning Attention to Trucks

General Motors designer Ken Parkinson says since auto makers began turning their attention to quality and durability, striking design has emerged as a way to stand out from the crowd. A well-executed design evokes an emotional effect, and says something about the person who buys the vehicle.

“Are the surfaces, lines, materials and execution compelling enough to draw people to say, ‘I’ll take it’?” he says. “In the end, it is a balance of these and other important attributes that bring someone to sign on the bottom line.”

In the past, certain segments demanded more design focus, such as coupes and convertibles. Now the midsize-sedan category is receiving styling makeovers with the likes of the Fusion and Hyundai Sonata and auto makers now are turning their attention to trucks and utility vehicles.

Imbuing style into a vehicle often used for work duty, such as a pickup, SUV or cross/utility vehicle, that typically is taller and wider, poses hurdles, but designers say they are ready for the challenge.

Hunter points to the redesigned ’14 Toyota Tundra pickup that blends style and functionality. “Sometimes big (vehicles) can be an asset, because the user wants to feel the vehicle is capable and rugged,” he says. “Sometimes size can benefit that experience and image.”

Mays believes designing a truck takes a different mindset. “There are designers on our team that are the best truck designers in the world, but that’s not the designers you’d necessarily want on Fusion,” he says, noting styling matters in every segment.

“A lot of my job is casting,” Mays says. “I cast the right player for the part, and if I can put the right designer on the right program, 95% of the work is done.”

Most Everyone Agrees There is Risk in Design

Most everyone agrees there is risk in design. The more you push the envelope, the more opportunity there is to fail. Styling that is too forward-thinking can become outdated more quickly than classic design. Bad styling also hurts residual values.

But Hunter says designers must peer two to five years into the future. “All we can do is look at customers’ values and assess what people will want, and try to find that answer. But it’s worth the risk.”

It’s important for auto makers to pick their battles when it comes to pushing the design envelope, Gilles says. Taking a calculated risk in one area is acceptable, but creating an entire vehicle with a progressive design can be a recipe for disaster.

“You have to balance it and be careful the whole car isn’t a cacophony of risks,” he says. “Companies are experimenting with finding their identity.”

Having an eye-pleasing interior has become just as critical, the designers say, and auto makers are pouring more resources into the cabin.

“Bottom line, whether driver or passenger, the interior is where we spend our time,” Parkinson says. “It cannot be an afterthought or merely the result of the exterior theme.”

A topnotch interior design is essential not only in high-end vehicles, but also entry-level cars that in the past offered drab cabins laced with inferior materials, Hunter says. That won’t fly in today’s market, where car buyers, regardless of price point, demand high-quality interiors.

“Cheap doesn’t cut it anymore, and customers will reject those cars,” he says. “The challenge is how to bring a premium-looking interior at a reasonable price.”

bpope@wardsauto.com