It's a new model's design that really gives it power in the marketplace. The entire auto industry knows this, and it's doing its best to treat consumers to a dazzling spectacle of designs as a result.
Of course, design has always been important. A great one can turn a vehicle into an icon. And a bad one can easily make it the butt of late-night TV jokes. Good design has long attracted consumers to showrooms, even if the buyers end up driving off in a minivan and not the sporty little number that initially catches their eye.
But now the stakes are higher than ever. Automakers need to fine-tune their use of human creativity and new digital technologies to produce aching desires for one vehicle or another in the consumer.
It's not easy to define the magic that a new model needs to do that. Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of design for the Americas, says a vehicle should be designed "to attract people emotionally. I think the secret is for people to want it, even if they don't actually need it."
There are practical reasons for good designs. Automakers have to differentiate one vehicle from another in an era of shared platforms and components. They also need to design vehicles more quickly than ever, in a no-holds-barred competition to meet emerging consumer tastes.
And, in the best of all possible worlds, they need designs that stay fresh, extending the lifetime of a particular model as long as possible.
The industry is pursuing this design nirvana with an array of digital tools unimagined a decade or two ago. In the process, the romantic notion of beret-clad artisans chiseling away at their clay sculptures has fallen by the wayside, if indeed there was ever much to that stereotype in the first place.
But the tools don't really replace designers and modelers -- they bolster them. Today's studios remain airy spaces with plenty of clay models, and modelers can still be seen touching up one or another of their automotive sculptures.
Only now automakers use milling machines to shape their designs' physical forms, based on data input into software. And clay modelers have added computer-aided design to their repertoire of skills.
Design studios often have viewing rooms with giant high-definition screens to display their designers' latest concepts. Devices like Wacom digital tablets allow designers to sketch to their hearts' content and then introduce their designs directly into a virtual environment.
Clay models no longer need to be hauled to consumer focus groups around the country. Market researchers simply carry the designs on a disk in their pockets.
"Nowadays, we can get down from, say, five ideas to two without making a single model," Horbury said.
That means designers can also take a concept from inspiration to a management sign-off in just a few weeks, not months or years, said Imre Molnar, dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, one of the industry's leading producers of design talent.
When they look at their empty sketch pads and computer screens, designers face a bewildering array of options. And all the technology in the world won't help much with the hardest part: putting their finger on the soul of the vehicle.
The DNA of their brand is supposed to guide their process. DNA is equal parts identity and heritage, and designers will go to great lengths to identify it and remain true to it.
Horbury knows something about those three letters.
During much of the 1990s, as the head of design for Volvo, he strived to take the brand from its boxy past into its more streamlined future, without ever losing the brand's essence.
More recently, as Ford's executive director of design for the Americas, he carried out something similar with Lincoln. The 2009 Lincoln MKS that debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show is the result.
For the MKS, Horbury and his team teased out key design attributes from Lincoln's long heritage, and then used their tools and insights to create a new expression of that past. They ended up with a clean, classic look suited to the less ostentatious tastes of affluent car buyers today, Horbury says.
One key trait is a new take on the grille of the classic 1941 Lincoln Continental. The MKS's few embellishments include stainless steel window trim and bands of the same material extending along its roofline, "punctuating" its expansive exterior.
"The philosophy of Lincoln was almost an antidote to the Cadillacs, especially the '50s, '60s and '70s," he said. "Large though it was, it was not all singing-and-dancing, jet pipes and tail fins."
Part of Horbury's research on the project was more fun than, say, spending five hours trapped in small room with a bickering consumer focus group.
He and his team traveled to southern California to check out the consumer tastes in one of the world's top luxury markets. The trip was meant to assure that the Ford designers were on the right track.
"We suspected that the luxury market in America was changing," he says. "In California, we noticed that the days of the bright yellow Rolls Royce or Bentley were gone. It's the era of the silver Audis and the black Mercedes.
"People used to say, 'Hey look at me, I'm famous, I'm rich.' But now the windows on the Audis and Mercedes are blacked out, so you can't see them. It's very much the opposite of what it used to be."
One side trip involved a visit to a small, private hotel on the coast, with nothing more nefarious in mind than a little consumer research. That hotel seemed to be attracting more moneyed clients than the more showy St. Regis or Ritz Carlton nearby. "A tour of the place with a manager confirmed our suspicions," Horbury says.
Those impressions made their way into the designs presented to Ford's senior management. The gist was that Lincoln has had a long tradition of elegant restraint, and the luxury market now seemed ripe for it.
"We put together a presentation to persuade Ford senior management that this was the direction we wanted to take Lincoln," Horbury said. "And it worked."
Digital design is good for more than transforming concepts into pretty pictures for heart-stopping, high-definition displays. Its data can be subjected to rigorous engineering analysis. That's a good idea, since it never hurts to nail down the details of a good design in advance.
"A whole range of feasibility analysis can take place before the boss walks in," Molnar said.
General Motors is considered the leader in digital design among major automakers, Molnar says. A hybrid approach combining raw computing power and human skills has taken hold there and is becoming the norm.
It still leaves room for the artisan, since a purely digital approach can lead to disastrous designs. As a result, automakers are working more human involvement into their processes, says Molnar, who is sometimes invited into the world's top design studios.
That system involves both digital design and clay modeling, with the modelers giving the vehicle a polish that only the human eye and touch can provide. "Designers are working on tubes and they are sketching," he says. "Their designs go back and forth from the tablet to the tube."
One of the most important advantages of new digital processes is that they can help a project get the green light. There is nothing like a dazzling 3-D digital model on a massive screen to win senior management over, Molnar says.
In the case of the Lincoln MKS, the early design treatments were projected onto a huge 3-D screen, wowing top executives and speeding up the buy-in for the overall concept, Horbury says.
"There is a tremendous amount of money involved in tooling up for a production vehicle, and making a decision to hit the 'go' button is a huge responsibility," Molnar says. "The costs and time involved for getting a concept to the review stage once was huge."
Technology has reportedly made it easier for designers to sell edgy design features like the narrow windows of the Chrysler 300 to DaimlerChrysler management. With a fully elaborated 3-D design, execs could see that they were part of a signature look.
But at bottom, it was still human creativity, not technology, that led to the Chrysler 300's runaway success. It has been described as everything from "larger than life" to "cartoony. "But whatever the characterization, it has continued to earn accolades, even being named one of Car and Driver's "10 Best" three years after it hit the market in 2004. That's the kind of longevity the industry is looking for.