Design chiefs talk cars in Detroit

Top designers for several automakers discuss key vehicles at the 2015 North American International Auto Show.


For product and industrial designers, Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is an excess of riches. Thousands of products on display show off the best visual concepts that leading designers worldwide have accomplished.

The 2015 show was a special treat as it brought back the swagger and brilliant excess that had been missing in recent years as automotive producers focused on practical cars that could return them to financial health. Ford’s GT super car was clearly a star – a surprise to many visitors – that drew huge crowds of journalists and visitors throughout the two-week show.

A record 808,775 ticketed visitors toured the show in 2015, up less than 1% from 2014, but enough to set a record. Show highlights included:

  • 5,025 journalists from 60 countries and 40 U.S. states attended press-preview days
  • 55 production vehicle introductions
  • 7 concept car introductions
  • 35,551 people from 2,001 companies and 25 countries attended industry preview days
  • 13,350 people raised $5.3 million for children’s charities at the Charity Preview; more than $100 million raised since 1976
  • Total economic impact of NAIAS 2015: $400 million

Top designers from General Motors, Honda, and Nissan discuss their show offerings on the following pages.

North American International Auto Show


Chevrolet Bolt EV

General Motors’ stab at an affordable electric car, the Bolt promises a 200-mile range per charge and a price tag of less than $30,000. Shortly after the Detroit show, GM announced it will build a car based on the Bolt at a Michigan plant by 2016. Australian designer Michael P. Simcoe, executive director of Global Design for GM International Operations, discusses what the automaker was trying to convey with the car’s design.

Basic shape
This is more about delivering an electric vehicle that wasn’t the aerodynamic cliché. That format has become a de facto standard because it’s aerodynamic and it’s the most efficient shape available, but people don’t always fit into that kind of car, espeacially groups of people.

The proportions of this are the same as what we’d try to achieve on any small crossover. The area is good, the mass is good. That’s true if it’s electrically driven or powered by a petrol engine.

Unique design feature
The battery sits on the floor, and that raises the vehicle a bit taller. But we use that. One of the things that people like about CUVs is higher seating positions. By fitting the battery under the floor, we gained a functional use from that height while still giving potential drivers something they want.


Nissan Titan XD

The 2016 version of Nissan’s full-size pickup has one selling feature that Ford, GM, and Chrysler can’t match – a 5L V-8 diesel from Cummins. Chrysler has offered Cummins engines in its heavy-duty pickups and also has a V-6 truck diesel brought over from its partners at Fiat, but only Nissan can claim big-diesel engines in the light-duty truck market. Brent Hagan, senior planner of product planning for Nissan North America, says the automaker had to highlight that engine wherever it could with design.

Giant Cummins logos
It’s about communicating the durability, ruggedness, and quality of the truck. There’s no such thing as subtle with pickups this size. These are in-your-face vehicles, so every design cue has to match that idea.

Trucks have to fit the bravado and personality of truck customers. When you have a grille like this, it tells you that there’s something big and powerful inside.

Brand importance
We did a lot of survey work. We talked to customers, and we know the people who are going to be looking at the XD are interested because of Cummins. That puts us on the shopping lists of a lot of people who might not have considered us before. So we wanted to highlight that feature as much as possible.


Acura NSX

Honda has been showing off versions of its Acura NSX supercar for years, but the one in Detroit in January is the version that goes into production soon in Ohio. The NSX is a hybrid V-6 that promises track-winning performance with comfort features. John Norman, lead interior designer, says supercars are what get designers excited about the auto industry.

Improving the original
Compared to the original NSX, every component was pushed down as far as possible – seats, engine, transmission, dashboard, everything. When you put the front end down and shrink the A-pillars as much as possible (something that demanded the use of ultra-high-strength steel), you leave a lot of room to look out. That’s one of the things we liked about the original NSX, the panoramic view you got from the driver’s seat. We wanted to start from there and improve on it.

Favorite feature
We needed to make sure that you could drive this vehicle and control it comfortably. The one feature

I’m most proud of is the steering wheel. It might not look that different, but when you’re trying to ensure that someone can drive safely and comfortably at 200mph, you need to make sure that the main controls are perfect. We worked with the engineers making that steering wheel to perfect every surface, millimeter by millimeter.

Hopefully, nobody will notice how much work went into perfecting something so small, other than noticing that it feels great in their hands and that it fits with the feel of the vehicle.


About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at or 216.393.0271.