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.”