Interview: Buick Uses Younger Designers to Create Less-Geriatric Products
By Chris Haak
Of all the cars that I saw in Detroit this past week, the one that struck me as most impressive from a production car, practicality, and value standpoint was probably the 2010 Buick LaCrosse. I’d been hearing rumors for more than a year about how great the all-new LaCrosse would be, and how its interior quality and design would rival Cadillac’s own well-regarded CTS. Upon seeing the press photos of the final production car, I was very impressed. Similar to the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, GM succeeded in bestowing the 2010 LaCrosse with the appearance of a car that looks to be thousands of dollars more expensive than it really is. Unlike the current LaCrosse, built on GM’s ancient W-body platform, the 2010 model has modern proportions, a modern shape, and most of the premium features that competitors at its price point have – and in some cases, features the competitors don’t have.
As I was wandering through the GM display area on Monday, a PR person from GM asked me if I’d have any interest in interviewing “one of the young designers who worked on the LaCrosse.” I happily accepted the invitation, and was introduced to Justin Thompson, a 33 year old native of Australia who has been with GM since 1999 and has worked in Australia for GM’s Holden subsidiary, in Shanghai for GM Asia-Pacific, and now in Michigan on the LaCrosse. In the photo above, Justin is on the right, I am on the left, and the LaCrosse’s design manager is facing away from the camera.
What began as a formal interview specific to the LaCrosse, with pen and notepad in my hand, evolved into a fairly wide-ranging conversation about vehicle design in general, what it’s like to see a design facelifted, and more. At one point, I stopped taking notes and just enjoyed the conversation, which lasted quite a while. I felt very fortunate to have had an opportunity like that – things had been fairly quiet on the show floor at that point, as I was away from the current press conference – and Justin was very gracious in taking the time to speak with me for such a long period. The interview was honestly one of the highlights of the show for me.
It doesn’t take a car buff to understand that Buick has a significant demographic problem; its average buyer age is 63, or 16 years older than the 47 year old average age of all new car buyers in the market. Quite literally, Buick’s customers are dying off, and by catering to older folks – whether intentionally or not – Buick needs to continue to appeal to its traditional buyers, while offering stylish, desirable, modern products that younger buyers might find appealing.
To that end, GM chose a somewhat unorthodox move – yet one that seems to have paid off, if the fruits of their labors – are any indication: it engaged designers in their 30s to design a car that could theoretically re-energize the Buick brand. Further complicating their task was that with Buick now christened as a “core” GM brand, important both in North America and in China (where far more Buicks are sold there than in North America), had to appeal to buyers in two very different cultures.
Justin felt that his favorite styling features of the car were its DLO (daylight opening; i.e., its greenhouse), its short overhangs, and its wheels being pushed to the corners. The fact that the LaCrosse is built on GM’s all-new Epsilon II platform gave the design team a much better palette to work with. Justin also noted the “sweep spear,” which is the two-part character line that runs atop the front fender, dipping down to a low point in the center of the rear door, only to dramatically arc upward again to form the “hip” over the rear quarter panels (visible in the photo to the left); the sweep spear is something that Buicks have featured on and off for decades, and is one of three must-have features for all new Buicks going forward; the other two include the waterfall grille and portholes.
The portholes date back to 1949, and have appeared sporadically on various Buick models throughout the ensuing years. Fortunately, beginning with the Enclave, they have made the transition from being a styling afterthought (as they were on the 2003 Park Avenue) to an integrated styling feature. According to Justin, the design team tried putting them nearly everywhere between the fenders and the hood before deciding to put them on the hood, near the edge, in a location that is about as well-integrated as they could be. As on the Enclave, they’re not circular anymore, but rather more like parallelograms, and are only barely visible when looking at the hood from the same plane it’s on.
When asked what color he prefers the car in, Justin had a somewhat surprising answer – he hadn’t seen his creation in the metal in any colors aside from the dark red and silver pre-production pieces at the show, and white and black mockups. Generally, he preferred darker colors (and seeing the car in natural lighting) because of the surface detailing that comes to the fore with darker colors, but is less-obvious in lighter hues. I’d tend to agree, as I believe that there’s nothing that looks better than a clean black car (and the corollary is that there’s nothing harder to keep clean than a black car).
I made a comment about the tendency of manufacturers to tinker with carefully thought-out designs and slap new grilles or other facelifts on them, and when I asked about this phenomenon, Justin laughed and indicated that a separate team was responsible for those types of refreshes, because the designers who generally are getting to work on an entire car have moved onto their next whole-car project, leaving others to work on such restyling masterpieces as the Pontiac G6 GXP, 2003 Saturn L-series, and the 2008 Buick Lucerne. (To be fair to GM, there are plenty of other examples out there, such as the 2009 Acura RL, Subaru Tribeca, Ford Taurus (nee Five Hundred) off hte top of my head).
Justin cited the current Cadillac CTS as one of his favorite GM North America vehicles in terms of styling – and indeed the entire package – as well as the Chevrolet Corvette. Expanding the scope of the question to all of GM worldwide, he’s partial to the Holden Commodore – and he should be, since he worked on that project before working on the LaCrosse. I found it interesting that the Holden Commodore (which is, of course, the vehicle that also became the Pontiac G8 in the US and Canada, the Chevrolet Lumina in the Middle East, the Vauxhall VXR8 in the UK, and Buick Park Avenue in China) was pretty much finished from a design standpoint around 2002, yet the car was only launched in Australia in 2006, and in the US in 2008. While the design is fairly conservative, it also still looks modern from a proportion standpoint seven years later.
He did not hesitate to name competitors who have been successful in defining their own design language, and rigidly adhering to that; he specifically cited the work that Audi has done in recent years, as well as some BMW models, such as the Z4 and 7-series; Justin pointed out that the grille in newer BMW models is again canting forward slightly, as they did in years past – which is something I hadn’t even noticed until after he mentioned it, and I went back to the BMW booth and saw it for myself.
While Justin didn’t have a hand in the car’s interior design – that work was done by a different team – I actually find the interior to be the best aspect of the new LaCrosse. The seats are comfortable, the interior is spacious, and in fact, I found it a slightly nicer, more comfortable place than what to this point had been the best GM interior I’d ever seen – the Cadillac CTS.
After sitting in both front and rear seating positions in the car for a few minutes, I asked if he felt that the current high beltline/low roofline trend had reached its peak, and would indeed start to move in the other direction. Justin felt that the trend had pretty much reached its limit, but whether future cars would again have high rooflines and low beltlines (I keep thinking of the 1990 Lumina sedan as the polar opposite of the current trend, where the beltline was almost next to the seat) depended upon the proportions most appropriate for that specific automobile. The good thing about the LaCrosse and its small-ish windows is that I never felt visibility was compromised; I can’t say the same for the Lincoln MKZ, for example, where I felt as if I were sitting in a bathtub while driving the car.
Understandably, one of Justin’s biggest frustrations that designers of well-received new products – such as the 2010 LaCrosse – is that in spite of all of the excellent new vehicles coming from GM, there are still plenty of duds in the lineup that just have to work their way to the end of their life cycles. For every new CTS in the lineup, there’s a DTS or STS. For every 2010 LaCrosse, there’s a Lucerne (which, by the way, breaks the now-gospel Buick design rule that all cars should have the sweep spear). For every Malibu, there’s a Cobalt or Aveo. Eventually, these less-competitive products will go away, but in the meantime, will the new products build enough momentum to carry the company to see the full lineup turnover that it pretty desperately needs? It’s such a catch-22, because the old products are funding development of the new products, but if the old products sell too slowly, the new products won’t get the funding they need, and can be delayed or canceled.
Knowing that talented car guys like Justin Thompson are being given a free hand to build a better Buick makes me more optimistic for the brand’s future, and indeed GM’s future, than I was a week ago. The company is doing nearly all of the right things with its products, and the fact that it greenlighted a Buick that a young Australian penned – and doesn’t look like anything Buick has ever built before (the three main styling cues notwithstanding) – makes me think that perhaps the decision making hierarchy at General Motors might be finally making the right decision, as opposed to just an inoffensive consensus.