GM Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn explains how Global design played a role in shaping Chevrolet’s next great vehicle.
It’s been around the world. Now it’s eager to come home.
The extraordinary new 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (available fall 2010) — which was baked in the Arabian desert, wintered in Scandinavia, punished in Venezuela and exercised in the Alps— has been turning heads and winning drivers across the globe after logging more than 4 million test miles, enough to circle the earth 160 times.
Boasting more interior space than Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic and an estimated 40 MPG highway on the Eco version (Based on GM testing and manual transmission. Official EPA estimates not yet available.), Chevrolet’s latest automotive marvel is ready to “Cruze” onto America’s highways this year. Ed Welburn — the architect of Cruze, Volt (arriving in select markets at the end of 2010), Sonic (arriving fall 2011) and other new Chevrolet models — is more than happy to talk about these big days for the company.
ED WELBURN: I’m so excited about this car. It’s a compact, but one with interior space. It has more leg room in the backseat than the Civic because of its long wheelbase, so it bridges the Compact Car/Midsize Car market. I think it will have a broad appeal because of that.
The market this car is going after — the Compact segment — is really the heart of the market globally. It’s true in China, it’s true in Europe and it’s becoming true here in the States as well. Cruze has been introduced in China. It’s been there for quite a few months now, and it’s doing extremely well. When you’re in Shanghai you see them everywhere. It’s in Europe now, and it’s on its way to the States.
The Cruze website says, “An all-star team of international designers pushed the interior boundaries of Cruze.” Tell us more about this.
I think all of our teams are special, but the Cruze folks did a very creative job. They landed on this design earlier than we normally do in the design process, and I thought that was great because it actually gave them more time to focus on execution.
When you sit in the interior and you look at that instrument panel, it just looks like a very premium interior. The right materials, the right graining of parts and just the appropriate amount of bright pieces here and there — details that really helped give it that kind of sparkle and inviting feeling that a great interior needs to have.
It showcases our commitment to making interior design a very high priority, which also is apparent in the latest Camaro,Equinox, Malibu and Silverado models. You live in the interior, and it needs to be a warm, inviting place.
That’s why we’ve put some of our most talented people on interior design. We have 10 design studios around the world, and every one of those studios has certain priorities and certain areas they’re really strong in.
In the past, as you were developing a vehicle, it would have a nice interior, then deep into the program, when you really had to balance the car financially, they would start to take content out of the interior because it was too late to change anything on the exterior. We don’t do that anymore.
I think we manage the program — and by “we” I mean not just design, but engineering, marketing and planning — far more efficiently, and the content remains in the interior. We all have to work together, and when that occurs, it all connects.
In 2003 you replaced the retiring design chief after his stellar 42-year career at GM. Do you think you’ve put the “Ed Welburn imprint” on the Chevrolet look at this point?
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way. But the team that I lead really has developed a new design language for Chevrolet. The face of Chevrolet has become consistent globally. One of the first challenges I took on when I took this job was to develop a clear identity for Chevrolet global, a spirit and energy in the car that is recognized wherever you go around the world.
What kicked off a lot of that work was developing the Camaro, a very spirited design. I like to say there’s a bit of that Camaro spirit in everything we develop for Chevrolet. Some of that energy, that tension, is in every design. It’s certainly in the Cruze. I look at it maybe from an abstract perspective, but really the form is very authentic. That’s what Chevrolet is all about. Its vehicles are very lean and very agile, and have a lot of spirit. Every Chevrolet should have a lot of spirit.
Where do your designers take their inspiration? Do they ever look outside the auto industry?
I think you have to. We certainly benchmark the competition quite thoroughly, but if you’re only looking at your competition’s vehicles, by the time your car comes to market it’s a used car. You can only take that so far. You’ve got to look at what’s happening in the electronics industry, what’s happening in product design, what’s happening in fashion.
There is some very creative use of material in the Cruze interior. It’s a very interesting and different approach when you look at the instrument panel and some of the textures that are used. That influence came from the fashion industry.
Certainly, internally we’re developing some concepts that you’ve never seen. Camaro is a real halo for the brand. So is Corvette. The Cruze interior has a “twin-cockpit” design as we call it, very much inspired by Corvette. It’s like the driver has his or her cockpit, and so does the passenger. It goes back to the Corvette of the late 1950s, and you see it repeated in the Sting Ray of the early ’60s, handled in a different way, but that twin cockpit is there. And now we use those basic shapes for all of our cars. Malibu has it, Cruze has it and every other new Chevrolet to come will as well.
What role does consumer input play in influencing design?
It’s very important. I mean, we’re not designing these cars to hang in a modern art museum. They are designed for customers across the country and around the world. And we have to have a real dialogue. It’s not just us talking to customers. In the case of Cruze,
I mentioned that it’s sold in China, Europe and India. We talk to all these customers around the world because the basic design of the Cruze, at a glance, will look the same everywhere. But we really have to dial in the design to local cultures, local customs and design trends.
The interior finishes and materials might be a bit different in the States than in India, for example. There may be one trim level or wheel size that’s different here from another part of the world. You only know exactly what’s right for customers if you have a good dialogue with them. And that’s why the focus groups and research take place.
Our design centers are very close to our customers, very close to the cultures, and they have a good understanding of what really connects.
How do you view Chevrolet vehicle design for 2012 and beyond?
Well, I think the important thing is that the Chevrolet brand really continues to grow and its influence globally will be tremendous. I think the best days of Chevrolet are ahead of it because of that. Our design centers have a tremendous focus on the brand, and a great deal of it is for Chevrolet here in the States.
There will be far more emphasis on very spirited small cars. It is my feeling that we need to respect our customers who want a small car as much as our customers who want any other vehicle type, and those designs need to be very complete and very creative in their execution. I think fuel
economy will continue to be significant, probably even more so, and we’re certainly prepared with the Cruze and its great fuel economy figures (an estimated 42 HWY MPG2 on the Eco version), and with Volt on the horizon. In the future, whatever we can do to make the design more efficient and even more aerodynamic will certainly help and will have an influence on fuel economy as well.
And two more, the all-new Sonic and the 2013 Spark, are on the way?
I think that Sonic, which is in production, and the Spark (coming 2013) are very good examples of developing small cars that have a lot of spirit. Spark isn’t just a small, affordable car; I believe it’s a lifestyle choice. There are some who will purchase the car just because they like the size or they like the kind of energy or personality it has. I want one because I just think it’s a cool car.
7 Ways to Determine Your Chevrolet Style
GM Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn discusses the design elements you should look for when choosing your next Chevrolet vehicle.
- Love at First Sight Does the exterior design draw you in — the proportions of the car, its stance, its color, its form? There’s a whole emotional quality that comes from the exterior design.
- Mind the Gaps Pay attention to detail and the perceptual quality that make a vehicle — the fit, the finish and the nice, tight gaps between all the elements of the design.
- Get a Handle on It Do you feel comfortable opening the driver-side door? Can you picture yourself doing it thousands of times during your ownership of the vehicle?
- Welcome Inside Do you find the interior to be warm and inviting? Every Chevrolet features materials that look far more expensive than they actually are.
- Master of Your Domain Look at the instrument panel. Are the controls right where you want them to be, where they need to be? Make sure all the controls are easily within your reach.
- Visibility Is a Critical Factor Do you have a clear view of the road from the driver seat? The visibility throughout the interior — being able to see everything and being able to see the area surrounding the vehicle — is very important.
- Smooth Operator Do you like how the controls feel as you turn a knob or move the shifter from Park into Drive? It’s not enough for the interior to look richly appointed; it needs to function, too.