What should a car look like?

There are stories of hard work and inspired creativity behind cars that leave us goggle-eyed with their beauty. Designing a car is not simply a process of an artist sitting on a desk and penning a few lines. A lot of research goes into the final look of a car, with inputs taken even midway through the design process. There isn’t one design template and each car is in its own way an individual product. But, as Ehab Kaoud, chief designer, Ford North America, tells us, there is often a single paradigm that marks the vehicles of any one company.

Kaoud discusses automobile design in the context of the Ford EcoSport, launched last June, and arguably one of the most appealing among uniquely designed cars to have been launched in the past few years. Love it or hate it, but its urban SUV design is a first of its kind. With such game-changing looks — high stance, short monocoque body, intrepid grille reminiscent of Ford pick-ups and the gentle slopes — the EcoSport has yet managed to remain true to its promise of being affordable.

Kaoud says, “Our cars have to have a premium look, yet be affordable. Based on a number of studies, we believe this is one very important factor in the Ford DNA.” The EcoSport’s appearance is quite distinct from others in the company’s stable, perhaps cocking a snook at another school of design thought that says car manufacturers should opt for similarity, at least in the looks, among the family vehicles. While many say that the compact SUV has a personality of its own, Kaoud differs and says, “Take the front trapezoidal grille. It is actually similar to those of most of Ford cars across the world.

This helps people identify a car as having come from our company.” This also answers why the latest Figo Concept’s nose resembles the Aston Martin’s, which was for some time an exclusively Ford marque and even now is part owned by the American car maker.

A car whose looks age rapidly is a designer’s nightmare. So coming up with a distinguished look is only half the work, it must also have longevity. “Perception is everything,” says Kaoud. So, often the first thing that auto designers tackle is the silhouette or the profile. Everything here depends on how a designer divides the car’s body among the bonnet, the cabin and the rear. Each line is important, for it control how the light reflects off the body, which, in turn, determines whether the car’s presence is sporty or heavy.

“An innovative silhouette is also about proportions like the amount of glass to sheet metal,” Kaoud explains. The use of curved glass along with the C pillar, for instance, explains why the EcoSport looks fresh and the interiors feel spacious.
Ford carried out three market surveys at different designing stages. “Early on we showed customer 5-6 images and we got their feedback. We incorporated many of their suggestions — like what the design should look like among a station wagon, traditional SUV or a crossover,” says the designer.

The EcoSport underlines the wisdom of ensuring that auto designers get the aerodynamics right. “The aerodynamics are very important because they equate to fuel efficiency,” says Kaoud. Like most car makers, Ford first makes a clay model of a vehicle and tests it in a wind tunnel. This helps the designers find out exactly how the car will fare in real life conditions. “When you say a car has efficient looks, it means that there are no excess — like the rear wheels being placed in line with the body of the car — and that the designing incorporates wraparound corners,” he says.

Design has to take the safety factor into consideration. This is not simply about safety belts or air bags. Meticulous planning factors in the way a driver usually sits in the car as well as the distance between the passengers in the front and the instrument panel. “We make sure that all the styling complement the safety aspects. Usually these are higher than those required under legal standards,” he claims.

Cars that catch your eye on the road will have gone through a long process of creative thinking and mechanical experimenting. But for all their efforts, the designers unfortunately hardly get to see the contented smiles of owners as they slide behind the steering wheel.