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Appearance becomes increasingly important to car shoppers

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but automotive styling also is firmly planted in the minds of industry executives as a potential difference between success or failure in today's challenging market. • "Styling is becoming so important now because we have just gone through a phase in the late 1990s when vehicles looked much the same," said John Tews, director of media relations at J.D. Power & Associates. • "Now people are looking for ways to differentiate themselves, and you see that in the uses of bolder colors and style. We never really lost our passion for cars, we just went through a very utilitarian period." • Back in the '90s, he said, silver, black or white were the order of the day — now, you see vehicles in bold oranges and yellows and retro shades of green. • So what makes successful styling? Family identity

Industry analysts say the car or truck has to have a strong relationship to the rest of the company's products. "There are certain forms of theme and structure out there, so you know immediately that a Ford is a Ford, and Chevy is a Chevy, and a Honda is a Honda as soon as you see them," said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland professor who follows the auto industry. A family resemblance to other models in the company lineup can be a big help in smoothing the way for public acceptance when new models come out bearing that nameplate.

Value of style

With some types of products, looks are relatively unimportant; with others, such as sport cars and luxury models, style is paramount. "It all varies by segment, " said Tom Libby of J.D. Power. "In the midsized car segment, styling plays a lesser role because people are looking for the utilitarian qualities more. For small basic cars and compact, conventional sedans like Corolla, along with minivans, styling doesn't play much of a role." The same is true of trucks — but only for midsize ones. Full-size trucks, because they are larger, offer a much bigger canvas for expression and uniqueness. That's why Chevy's subtly elegant Silverado, Ford's brawny F-150 and Dodge's powerful looking Ram have adopted three strikingly different design themes.

Attention to details

Another important requisite for styling success can be summed up in one word: details. "I think these days there's a lot to be said for details, especially those you don't necessary see as important — things like cut lines for the car's exterior, the panels and how close they come together," said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book.

Take key fobs and controls, for instance. The key fob is "the very first thing that a person picks up in the morning to get to their car," Morici said. A good-looking, eye-catching key fob might make you feel you're driving a better car. As for controls such as knobs, switches and the like, Tews said, "We've seen with some of our studies where the design, look and feel of knobs on the dashboard are becoming awfully important. Consumers are paying a lot of attention to those, more than ever before."

Notable cars

Chevy Malibu: "It's a very beautiful vehicle, and very road-worthy, too; and for a mass-production car at its price point, it is a very, very nice car," Morici said.

Honda Accord: "That thing is just gorgeous. The Accord shows how much can be accomplished in styling a $25,000 vehicle. That's part of what makes the Accord the gold standard in modern mass-production vehicles."

Ford's upcoming Fiesta compact has received almost universal acclaim for being one of the most beautiful subcompacts in the world. Analysts expect it to be a huge seller for the company when it is introduced in 2010.

Appearance becomes increasingly important to car shoppers 10/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 2:26pm]
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