As we enter the new year, those in the automotive industry find themselves in the midst of ‘best new vehicle’ awards. Whether the award carries a geographic designation – Asian Car of the Year, North American Car and Truck/Utility (NACTOY) Awards, World Car of the Year – or from a publication – Car and Driver, Motor Trend – it’s a great achievement for the recognized vehicles, their brand and their development teams. For 2016, there are 49 vehicle launches, making it no easy task for jurors. What I find interesting is the vast diversity across the field of finalist and winning vehicles.
Let’s just take a quick look at the NACTOY finalists – the Mazda MX-5, the Chevrolet Malibu and the Honda Civic in the car category and the Volvo XC 90, Honda Pilot and Nissan Titan XD pickup in the truck/utility category. So, basically two traditional type sedans against the sportier Mazda and two SUVs against a down-sized pickup. To me, this already feels like comparing apples and oranges in terms of commonality.
A pitch could be made for an Asian connection (four out of six finalists), but digging a little deeper illustrates how globalization of the industry has blossomed. For the Nissan Titan, all of the research and development was conducted in the United States, which certainly influenced the design, which was also done in the U.S.
So, what made these finalists of the year? Design? Performance? Safety? Price? Infotainment? Are there commonalities among the vehicles to be found across these various areas? Do they all have outstanding powertrains? Well, the Malibu, Honda Civic, Nissan and Volvo engines had all been finalists in Ward’s Best 10 Engines, but none made the final cut.
Was it the new gadgets and features? The Volvo has a nine-inch (yes, nine-inch) Sensus entertainment system. But, all of the vehicles are well-equipped with infotainment features. And, safety offerings continue to grow across vehicles. The Honda Civic Touring model comes with both forward collision and road departure warnings; the Malibu offers safety packages that provide lane assist, pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, etc.
Certainly, achieving better mileage is a mandate that has to be given attention. This is accomplished either through improved powertrain performance, which was already commented upon, or weight reduction. Interestingly, among the car finalists – both the Malibu and Civic came in not only lighter, but also longer (the Civic is also wider), illustrating the intersection of innovative design and new material use.
Certainly, the use of aluminum across these vehicles has helped to shave pounds. But, the Miata also shed some weight by using Aeron-like chairs for its seats, helping to improve the driver experience as compared to the previous stiff-backed composite seats. So, maybe it’s the aesthetics of the design? Well, certainly the Miata looks more fun to drive than its competitors and the Nissan more utilitarian, so again it’s hard to compare.
As it's formally stated, the NACTOY awards consider comfort, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction PLUS innovation and value for the dollar. This year, the 2016 Honda Civic and the Volvo XC 90 were the winners.
The bottom line is that every person has their own personal set of optimal mobility experience requirements. This is the challenge for automakers - offering the variety desired and checking all the boxes for the must-have features each driver wants. Today’s consumer says they increasingly want more from a vehicle – more safety features, more infotainment options, more powertrain choices, great performance, beautiful design – as long as this all comes with what they deem a reasonable price tag. Oh, and by the way, could you do that quickly please?
It’s an amazing industry that can produce 49 new models given the complexity of today’s vehicles. Just wait until 2017 when 76 launches are anticipated. Variety is the spice of life and there is bound to be something for just about every consumer, no matter how demanding.
As people begin the 'oohing and aahing" process in regard to the new vehicles being launched at the 2016 North American International Auto Show, I want to make sure we remember the unsung heroes of manufacturing behind these cool cars.
Being involved in manufacturing reminds me a bit of my early advertising agency days. We had an incredibly original creative director who was also a very effective sales person. He would come up with promotional ideas that no one had ever thought of before. The clients would love the pitch, commit the dollars and then the 'magic' had to begin; meaning the agency then had to make the dream a reality. That's when the blood, sweat and tears (often literally) would begin as we had to find a way to create the wonderful item that had never been produced before, and hopefully do so profitably. The customer never saw the insanity taking place in our art department and conference room (which became an assembly station). They just saw the 'awesome' end product.
Coming up with ways to execute on new, innovative and awe-inspiring designs is what manufacturers do everyday. As people walk the auto show and drool over the sleek lines of a new vehicle, I am doubtful that a single one will wonder about the stamping and forming operations that produced those elegant and detailed body sides. I am positive that no one will reflect on the difficulties that the manufacturer faced in finding ways to adequately flatten and feed the lightweight, yet high strength advanced steel coil strips to the press. Certainly, no one is going to wonder about the design and machining of the stamping die that enabled the creation of the body panel contours or the myriad other manufacturing tools and processes required to create the vehicle.
To produce the powertrain, climate control, instrument panel, frame, steering wheel, tires, wheels, brakes, suspension, exterior trim, body & interior, and fuel and emission systems necessary to build a complete vehicle requires about 2200 components and assemblies. Behind each of these components is a manufacturing process that requires tooling and equipment. No matter how long I've been around this industry, I am still amazed at how everything comes together in a way that belies all of the activity required to bring a flawless vehicle to the showroom.
As I learned at my early agency job, creative ideas and new designs are great, but finding an effective way to produce them is where the real ingenuity comes in. Vehicle design will always be the sexy part of the industry. But as you walk the auto show floor and admire the vehicles, grant some time to appreciate all the work you never see required to produce that car.