Look like your car

You have seen it all — from the box on wheels to the sleek cat-like form that hugs the road. These are the cars you yearn for or lampoon. Some cars are so hot they make you stop in your tracks or approach carefully when they are parked. Some cars inspire reverence, others mockery. But the design of a car goes beyond that — it not only has something to do with how others see you, but it can also change how you see yourself.

“Some people identify themselves by their car; some people don’t care,” said Mark Baskinger, a professor in the design department.

If you’re a car buff and stopped by the 2006 Pittsburgh International Auto Show, you have already seen some of the newest designs from well over 30 car manufacturers, including luxury brands like Aston Martin and Bentley. To an untrained eye it may all look good to you, especially after long, cold waits for the bus in the morning. But what do real designers think of the looks of cars today?

Greg Zulkie, a sophomore industrial design major, feels that the Detroit Auto Show showcased the problems that the American manufacturers have faced lately. He stated that, after releasing a lot of SUVs and trucks, “[Ford’s] sales hit rock bottom this year, along with GM. Both companies have been in damage control mode for at least a year and haven’t appeared to even consider new models that take risks.”

Zulkie believes that among American, European, and Japanese cars, Japanese cars “are reflecting the best of two different markets.” Zulkie notes reliability, gas mileage, and performance as the star points in Japanese-made vehicles.

So how do Carnegie Mellon students stack up? How much car-style savvy does the Morewood parking lot, or Margaret Morrison Street, reflect? Baskinger said, “On this campus you see the BMW 3 Series everywhere. It’s got a high sticker price for what it is.” But though the ticket is high, Baskinger thinks the car is “nicely styled and ... speaks to the identity of a lot of our students.” Zulkie agrees, saying that BMWs stand out among student and faculty rides.

Among the car manufacturers that Baskinger said do it best is Toyota. “[They] squeeze as much out of the price as they can,” but he said that Toyota is still trying to figure out “what their cars look like.” While Toyota may be floundering to create a distinctive style, their sedans have become increasingly influential, according to Baskinger. He mentioned that Volkswagen and Jetta have adopted the “rounded blobular form” for their sedans, similar to the Camry or the Corolla. Baskinger called this trend the “Camrification of the automobile.”

A notable car dud from the past was the Chevy Nova, a real flop in the Spanish-speaking world where its name means “doesn’t go.” More recent failures? Baskinger picks the Pontiac Aztek as the big no-no in recent years. By placing the Aztek on a minivan platform, Baskinger said Pontiac made it look like “too much car.” He feels that the Aztek tries to “fake” the look of a military vehicle, and the car ends up looking “bloated.” Baskinger doesn’t discriminate against military-inspired rides — his favorite car is the Land Rover Defender 90, which he called “the simplest car ever made.” Zulkie, on the other hand, noted the H2 and H3, inspired by the military Hummer vehicle, as his least favorite cars. “They represent the arrogance of gas consumption in America,” he said.

But Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh are doing pretty well at keeping the roads tank-free, according to Baskinger. He said that of the places he’s lived (New Jersey and Illinois, among others), he finds that Pittsburgh has a pretty even spread of SUVs versus cars. He mentioned he sees a lot of luxury SUVs in the Maggie Mo lot, though.

While many a college kid lusts after a ride — any ride — design can be an important element in how you get from point A to point B. To make life easier for the clueless, The Tartan has compiled some basic “picks” on design happenings in the automotive world.

More car for your money: “Volkswagen and Subaru offer more performance for less money, with more attention to materials.” —Baskinger

Improving manufacturers: All companies are trying to improve; “Ford, Chrysler, and Chevy are really paying attention to styling; before they [just] made cars that ran.” —Baskinger

“The brand I am most excited about in Japan is Mazda, in the past five years they have completely turned themselves around.” —Zulkie

Get used to it: “Cross-over vehicles will be here for a while... The Jeep Wrangler is timeless.” Traditional pick-ups will stick around, with the Honda Ridgeline being an example of the new breed of pick-up trucks. —Baskinger

Earth-friendly design: The hybrid market needs to find an in-between from the over-styled Honda Insight-type vehicle to seamlessly integrated vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Highlander. They need a balance between “completely hidden” and “completely overt” in terms of announcing their eco-friendliness. —Baskinger

“Hybrid SUVs are taking advantage of the battery motor for high performance in torque, rather than gas mileage... . There is an improvement in mileage, but not the significant kind.” —Zulkie

Gen-X-mobile: The Scion “[has] a lot of different variables; you get more choice.” —Baskinger

Well-designed: The Altima: “It has purposeful ornamentation.” —Baskinger

Blasting the past: “As cool as the retro pony cars are (new Mustang, new Camaro, etc.), I feel that it is a cop out to keep coming out with ‘new’ old cars.” —Zulkie

Beauty only skin deep: “I like the new Mustang’s overall exterior design; however when I sat in it, I was very disappointed with the car’s cheap interior.” —Zulkie