The Truth About Cars » Interview The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 15:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Interview Suzuki Death Watch 11: Is Suzuki Canada Really Safe? Fri, 16 Nov 2012 14:00:05 +0000 Suzuki CFSA Announcement

Almost as soon as ASMC declared its intentions for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Suzuki Canada, Inc. sent out the following statement:

“Suzuki’s customers can confidently continue to purchase new vehicles, obtain service, parts and accessories and take full advantage of Suzuki Canada’s warranty program,” said Bill Porter, Senior Vice President, Automobile Sales & Marketing, Suzuki Canada. “Suzuki Canada, including its Automotive Division, remains fully open for business in Canada, and will be honouring all customer commitments.”

“While Suzuki Canada will continue to monitor market conditions in light of the U.S. filing, we have no current plans to change Suzuki Canada’s operations as a result of the events in the U.S.,” Mr. Porter said. “Suzuki Canada remains proud of the upcoming 2013 model year for new automobiles, which will continue uninterrupted as planned”.

While the wording is fairly strong on Suzuki Canada’s intention to stay in the market in the Great White North, it isn’t nearly as strong as Mitsubishi President Osamu Masuko’s statement to Automotive News after the ASMC announcement:

“We have no intention whatsoever of withdrawing from the US market.”

That’s all that needed to be said. No wiggle room. Kill the speculation. However, Suzuki Canada’s statement leaves a lot to be interpreted. Phrases such as “…will continue to monitor market conditions…no current plans to change…” don’t necessarily strike confidence into the buying public.

While the Best and Brightest, including members of TTAC’s editorial staff believe Mitsubishi will be the next brand out the door, a statement such as the one from Mr. Masuko coming from a company’s president is pretty strong. We don’t see Osamu Suzuki making those kinds of statements about Suzuki’s intention to stay in the Canadian market.

Fortunately, we had a chance to speak with Bill Porter Thursday evening of last week to get some clarity on Suzuki’s position in Canada and where they plan to go in light of ASMC’s restructuring.

MS: “What do you think of ASMC’s Chapter 11 filing and how is that going to affect Suzuki Canada?”

BP: “Well, honestly, we don’t know. You know, of course, that’s something we are very interested in as well. I don’t think anyone could predict that or can predict that, let’s put it that way. I think it’s a matter of…and we say this in our press release and we’ve said it to our dealers…for us, business as usual. However, we are going to watch and see what impact this will have on our business. So, that’s something we are very aware of. It’s a new element. Normally you’re watching the competition and you’re watching to see what’s going on in the industry. This is just something else for me to keep an eye on to see what impact this will have on our business.”

MS: “Has Suzuki Motor Corp in Japan said ‘don’t worry’?”

BP: “There’s no change to what we’re doing. We’re doing just the same thing we have been doing all the way along. There’s just been no change to our operation. It is what it is. Just no change at all so just keep doing what you’re doing. We’ve had some pretty successful months and the last five months have been really good. We seem to be on a roll so there is no reason to muck around with that.”

MS: “Many of the same difficulties mentioned in the ASMC restructuring plan are also issues that Suzuki Canada faces.”

BP: “Some of them, yeah.”

MS: “Including the strong yen and a limited model range. How does Suzuki Canada plan to overcome those challenges?”

BP: “Well I think that we already are. This isn’t something that just popped up. This is something that’s been ongoing for a number of years. All of our product, as you may know, comes out of Japan. We’ve been able to deal with that as a company and a Canadian operation effectively and efficiently. We are an efficient little team here – you don’t know us of course – but, we’re a very efficient little engine over here. I’ve been with Suzuki for six years and I must say our business –  based on our business model – (the team) is the right size. There’s eight of us, just eight of us, in the automotive division at head office to run the whole thing. So, you know, that’s not very many people running an automotive division. But, we manage and have managed that for the last six years. Other car companies – I came from Hyundai, Kia, Nissan – we had a team of 100 people and I’m not exaggerating. They’re trying to do the same job we’re doing here with eight. It’s a matter of being efficient, being effective, and Suzuki, by the way, not just here, is known for being efficient and effective pretty much all over the world. I don’t know about the American situation. I do know they had a big job trying to service that big market. We just do what we have to do to make it successful.”

MS: “How does Suzuki Canada plan to bring new product to market without being able to leverage sales volume from the US operation?”

BP: “Well, that will be up to our head office to decide. I think that’s something that we said in our press release. SMC, our head office, will monitor the situation and look at plans going forward. Based on this decision by American Suzuki, that’ll be up to them (SMC) to come up with these ideas and plans. The Honda Fit is in Canada – it’s made in China – Honda Canada brings them in but they don’t sell them in the United States. So, it’s not impossible. I’m not saying they are going to do it (manufacture in China) but it’s a possible situation.”

MS: “Will we see Suzuki Canada import products from a country other than Japan, namely Hungary or India where costs are less than in Japan, Canada, or the US?”

BP: “Yeah, I can’t answer that question. I have no idea. We don’t disclose any future product plans. Suzuki doesn’t do that and never will. Even if I did know – I don’t – I couldn’t tell you. At this point in time, I don’t know that.”

MS: “Is Suzuki Canada one-hundred percent committed to the Canadian market? And does Suzuki Canada have the full support of Suzuki Motor Corporation to continue bringing fresh models to market?”

BP: “Well, I can’t answer that question. I don’t know that. I know that, again, looking at our press release – and I have to stick to that because that’s what we have to do here – but, it says Suzuki Canada has no current plans to discontinue new automobile sales in Canada and that Suzuki Canada, including the automotive division, continues fully open for business honouring all customer commitments. I think it’s a matter of what makes business sense. I think given the current development it’s something that will have to be looked at – what makes business sense.”

MS: “So, you cannot comment or confirm that Suzuki Canada is one-hundred percent committed to selling cars in the the Canadian market with the full support of Suzuki Motor Corporation?”

BP: “I can right now. Suzuki Canada has no current plans to discontinue new automobile sales in Canada. I think that is that commitment. But, again, you have to quantify that. Right now, that’s what the bulletin reads. ‘Has no current plans’. That’s our plan right now. Our new models (refreshed Grand Vitara, Kizashi, SX4) are out there. They’re going full speed ahead. I’m focused on that. If a decision is made at some point in time in the future, that’s something we will announce at that time. Right now, we are focused on what we need to do here – keep selling cars. Keep the momentum going, that’s our job. I know where you’re going, and I don’t know the answer to that question. I know what you’re trying to ask me and I understand. I just don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think anyone knows at this point. This is a huge announcement in the United States and I think it is something we all have to deal with and sort through as we go.”

MS: “What can consumers in the future expect from Suzuki regarding product?”

BP: “Again, obviously I can’t comment on that. By the way, we never have – I want to be clear, Mark – in the case of a lot of Japanese companies, everything’s really close to the vest.”

MS: “Are there any plans to replace the SX4?”

BP: “I can’t answer that question.”

MS: “Will Canada get a vehicle based on the S-Cross concept shown at the Paris Auto Show?”

BP: “No idea. No idea. I can’t answer that question. That was a prototype to get reaction on styling cues.”

MS: “So, do you think that will highlight what the new SX4 is going to look like when it is finally replaced?”

BP: “They didn’t even position it, I don’t believe, as a replacement for the SX4. I believe it was presented as a concept, a new looking car. Looking at the press release, I believe it was positioned as a separate car. I think some of the journalists in Germany picked that up – they tried to position it as a replacement but I don’t believet that’s the way Suzuki Motor Corporation presented it.”

MS: “How does Suzuki plan to differentiate itself from its rivals in the Canadian market?”

BP: “I guess we are right now. The key point is 85% of our vehicles (sold) are all-wheel-drive vehicles. That’s where we seem to shine. Particularly in areas where the climate is ‘not good’ – the province of Quebec where they see lots of snow and ice – we seem to do very well in those markets because of the size of the vehicle, it’s a compact vehicle, and of course it has the advantage of having all-wheel-drive. We only really have one competitor, to be honest with you, and that would be Subaru. That’s great, one competitor when you really think about it, in an automotive market where there’s twenty manufacturers to compete for the business. We’ll continue to focus on that key area of our business. The Grand Vitara and SX4, with the facelifted models and features we put in the cars, we have a distinct advantage now in equipment level over the competition. So, we’ll promote that. We have all of our advertising ready – we’re on television now in the province of Quebec – highlighting those features of the cars.”

MS: “Will we see any national advertising?”

BP: “It’s region by region. We only have 60 dealers in Canada. And, in Canada, there about 250 dealer points. There’s no sense in advertising in markets where they (customers) can’t go to a dealership. What we’ve done is go to the regional level and do more targeted marketing where dealers are and really focus on their markets, that’s the key to success. You can do the ‘shotgun advertising’ from coast to coast, that would be wonderful, but we’re only talking about 60 markets out of 250. There’s no sense in spending money doing that.”

MS: “How has the fact that Suzuki isn’t part of CAMI Automotive anymore hurt Suzuki Canada?”

BP: “Not that much, actually. We manufactured the XL7 there. I’ll be honest with you, we sold some, but that’s a tough segment to compete in. The compact sport utility segment is a very large segment. The intermediate sport utility segment is a much smaller segment and a very difficult segment. You get into some really pricy vehicles where those people that have the $40,000 or $45,000 really make decisions based on brand strength versus just value. so, we were selling some of them, maybe 1000 per year, but that was never going to be a volume car for Suzuki Canada. Just like the new Pathfinder for Nissan, that used to be their best selling car, but as soon as it went up in size and they brought the Rogue in, the Rogue became that car, and the Pathfinder just died.”

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Porsche: 22 911 Variants, LWB Panamera, “550 Spyder” Planned Fri, 22 Jul 2011 17:28:13 +0000

Every automaker is in this business to make money… there’s nothing surprising about that. But some are a little more focused on profits than others, and it should be equally unsurprising that Porsche is one of them. In an extensive interview with Automotive News Europe [sub], Porsche CEO Matthias Mueller gives a strong impression of how Porsche sees itself over the course of the first two questions:

What is your vision for Porsche in 2018?

Porsche is synonymous with sports cars – yesterday, today and doubtless tomorrow as well. In addition, in every other segment where we operate, such as with the Cayenne or Panamera, we always offer the sportiest vehicle. At the moment we are hard at work on our future strategy. And I promise you, it will contain a few exciting surprises.

What are your most important objectives?

We want to remain the world’s most profitable car manufacturer – and build on this position.

These are actually two separate goals altogether, and not two which necessarily go hand-in-hand. But if anyone can pull off the mix between performance and profit, it’s Porsche… and to understand how this strategy will play out in the near future, let’s take a look at Mueller’s product plans.

When asked about the greatest challenges facing Porsche’s product planning, Mueller notes

We will improve coordination between our model line product life cycles. Each year we want to celebrate a major event, namely bring a new Porsche to market. We are also revising and improving existing products and looking to see what would bolster Porsche’s image in terms of healthy growth.

By introducing a new “model” each year, Porsche keeps its hype-cycle rolling along without interruption from reliability studies, cynicism or challenges from competitors. The next big product to emerge from Zuffenhausen will be the next-generation 911 (991), and Porsche will make absolutely certain that this single model will sustain quite a few hype-cycles. How? Variants. Mueller explains:

With the 911, we are up to 22 derivatives. We use this as an example for the other models.

We’re already seeing this with the Boxster Spyder and Cayman R, which increase Porsche’s profitability immensely by charging a premium for relatively limited upgrades (and in some cases, equipment deletion in the name of “weight savings.” So, between increased profit and the PR and brand-awareness benefits of launching “new” models on a regular basis, expect Porsche to continue to slice-and-dice each nameplate into a plethora of mildly-varying “new” nameplates (think Speedster, GTS, Sport Classic, etcetera).

But when the flip side of this coin is that Porsche is actually looking at fewer derivatives of its Panamera platform for the simple reason that the sedan sells well, and the additional bodywork and development needed to turn a sedan into a coupe hurts the bottom line when compared with the low cost and high profit of mix-and-matching different 911 engines, transmissions and equipment (or the relatively low cost of adapting Audi’s Q5 CUV into the Porsche Cajun). When asked if a 928-style coupe or shooting brake could be based on the Panamera, Mueller answers

There are a lot of ideas out there. Our designers and engineers have fantastic ideas, like a two-door Panamera that makes even more of a coupe-like impression, and so on. We’re keeping all our options open. Currently, things are going so well with the Panamera that we’re not in any hurry…

I can as well very well imagine a long-wheelbase version, especially for growing markets such as China and Russia. We also think that a plug-in hybrid concept would fit well with the Panamera.

Stretching a sedan’s wheelbase and adding a larger battery and plug-in equipment is all relatively easy, and because such upgrades will play well in the not-especially-sports-car-friendly growth markets of China and Russia, that’s the priority. Further arguments for plug-in and hybrid developement: increasing emissions standards. Mueller notes

We are planning a hybrid concept in each model line. As already mentioned, we’re thinking about a plug-in hybrid variant of the Panamera. That would be the first of its kind in its premium sedan segment. With the 911, sportiness remains center stage. Thus we are planning a mild-hybrid variant (an automatic start-stop function) here at first.

Should it become apparent by 2020 that 20 percent of all new cars will already be electrically driven then you can take it that Porsche will also be challenging for 20 percent of its sales with electric vehicles. But I’m figuring on a total EV share closer to between 3 percent and 5 percent by 2020. We are now almost over the initial hype before the business has really got started. But we are not closing our minds to this development. If by 2050 a manufacturer’s average fuel consumption is not allowed to exceed 0.9 litres per 100 kilometers and the CO2 emissions per kilometer are at 20 grams then we have to prepare ourselves for this in good time.

Even when it comes to its highest-end supercar, Porsche thinks profit first. Mueller reveals that Porsche’s last hypercar, the Carrera GT, cost €120m to develop and implies that the forthcoming 918 Spyder will have a similar development cost, plus the additional cost of developing its hybrid drivetrain. And since the 918 will cost at least €600k and 918 models will be produced, Porsche’s looking at well over €550m in revenue from its range-topping hybrid hypercar (again, before hybrid drivetrain development).

But after the new 911, the LWB plug-in Panamera and the 918, Porsche may be facing its biggest profitability challenge yet in the form of “Project Mimo,” the long-rumored “baby Boxster.” That vehicle is said to be based on an architecture that could be shared with VW, but Mueller has more historical connotations to implant in the minds of consumers, calling it

a legitimate successor to the Porsche 550 – namely a small mid-engine sports car. Actually I couldn’t imagine a better name for a small roadster like that than the 550. But we’re just in the assessment phase.

And what are the competitors for this “modern 550″?

To be honest, very few. In another price bracket, there are models around such as the Mazda MX-5 with a segment share of just under 50 percent. We think that there is still a lot of room for Porsche and one VW sister model.

Competing at the Mazda Miata price point is going to be a huge challenge for Porsche, especially if there’s going to be a cheaper VW version keeping them honest. Of all the brand’s future plans, this is the one that seems most out of its current pattern of minimal development, maximum variation and premium pricing. It’s also the model that seems most intriguing. We’ll be curious to see if Porsche is able to add affordability to its values of sportiness and profitability.

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Inside The Mind Of Dan Akerson Mon, 06 Jun 2011 19:48:44 +0000

The Detroit News snagged a lengthy interview with GM CEO Dan Akerson, giving observers one of the first in-depth looks at the man who will be leading The General for the next three to four years. The interview is to lengthy to summarize here, but there are a few items that are worth noting…

For one thing, Akerson has some serious ambitions and doesn’t mind sharing them with the world.

There are a couple milestones in my tenure I want to accomplish. I want to earn $10 billion a year profit. I want get the U.S. pension fund to fully funded — and we’re making real progress there. I want to make Europe profitable on a sustainable basis.

None of these are going to be easy to accomplish. A $10b profit would require a doubling of GM’s performance last year, and the other goals (particularly in regards to the troubled European operations) will divert a huge amount of cash. Meanwhile, the old GM challenge of “culture change” continues to be one of Akerson’s top priorities as well, as he seeks to develop a competitive atmosphere and break down the tradition of “boss worship” which holds back the necessary give-and-take.

But possibly the biggest challenge Akerson faces has to do with GM’s product, and the DetN includes a separate write-up of Akerson’s thoughts on the matter. Speed of development is one of his major changes, and he acknowledges that his desire to pull forward development of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu faced internal dissent (which he overruled, raising questions about the alleged death of “boss worship” at GM).

On the issue of fuel economy, he argues that the Chevrolet Volt

is a novelty (today), but it won’t be in five years. It’s going to be an old, old technology and old news.

He also says ethanol will “die slowly” and hints that GM will eventually start selling dual-fuel commercial vehicles, capable of running on natural gas or gasoline. Akerson also says that

we’re not going to do these big, heavy trucks that are making 15 miles, 12 miles to a gallon.

Which, given rising CAFE standards and gas prices, comes as no real surprise. It does, however, create some challenges to his goal of $10b annual profits, as much of GM’s profit traditionally comes from the sale of large trucks, and fuel-economy-improvement-related cost increases for pickups are projected to be costly.

Akerson made a few surprising statements on the luxury front, including a perplexing assessment of Cadillac’s next two vehicles, the XTS and ATS, which he says

are not going to blow the doors off, but they will be very competitive.

Whatever that means. And despite his apparent lack of confidence in the next generation of Caddies, he still took a potshot at Ford, saying

They are trying like hell to resurrect Lincoln. Well, I might as well tell you, you might as well sprinkle holy water. It’s over

In general, Akerson comes across as quite candid, possibly overly so (though you won’t hear us complaining about it). But for all his ambitions, he offers relatively little in the way of specific strategies to accomplish them. For example, his desire to make GM more like Toyota is hardly a “strategy,” as every automaker has been studying and trying to replicate Toyota’s success for decades. Speeding up development is an indication of his approach, but it brings with it worries about future quality. Similarly his desire to compete with every Volkswagen model while simultaneously downsizing and restructuring Opel sounds like a tough balancing act. But then, when it comes to turning around a company as large and perennially troubled as GM, ambitious goals and tough strategies are the only way forward.

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Inside Ecomotors Part Two: An Interview With Don Runkle Thu, 22 Jul 2010 17:49:26 +0000
After the watching the OPOC engine run and shooting some exclusive video for TTAC, I was introduced to CEO Don Runkle.

Runkle joined the company last year and is convinced that in the long run no other energy source can compete with oil, and that the internal combustion engine will be here for a long time, albeit with an entirely new architecture, the OPOC. That’s the word that Runkle kept using regarding the OPOC engine’s design, architecture. That and “disruptive”. The OPOC, according to Runkle, is cheaper, better, simpler, stronger, lighter and cleaner than any other power generating technology now or in the foreseeable future. Cheaper than hybrids and electric vehicles and with a smaller carbon footprint too.

The engine’s width is exaggerated a bit by the other dimensions which are much smaller than a conventional engine of similar power. Runkle showed a slide of a proposed two-module engine, made up of two 75 HP two cylinder modules, that easily fit inside the standard frame rails of a Ford Fusion. The modular design, with an electric coupling clutch between the modules, allows for variable displacement without the frictional loses that current cylinder deactivation systems involve. The second module is simply decoupled and shut off and doesn’t spin when not needed. The modular concept also allows for superior EPA cycle performance since it can do the complete cycle on only one module, and also heats up quicker eliminating a lot of cold start emissions. EcoMotor’s target is to meet emissions standards without specialized catalytic converters that other diesels currently need to comply.

I took a picture of Runkle holding up a mockup of one of the 75 HP modules and it’s remarkably small. Runkle also showed me a suitcase generator, a 10KW emergency generator with a 10-15 HP OPOC, that’s literally the size of a small suitcase. Ten kilowatts is enough power to run most of your home. Because of the low profile, in front engined cars, the OPOC would allow lower hoods and better aerodynamics. In rear and mid engine vehicles, it’s compact size gives more passenger and cargo space. The Fusion concept drawing was with a transverse crankshaft, but Runkle said that with only slight modifications to the frame rails, the 150HP OPOC could fit longitudinally too.

For power generation applications, the modular concept allows scalability that is not possible with current ICEs. If peak demand means you need a 1000HP, that means you run a 1000HP engine all the time. With a modular design, as load increases, more modules can be brought on line and when load decreases, modules can be shut off, saving fuel.

Runkle says they won’t be following Lotus’ model with their Omnivore engine (another two-stroke design which EcoMotors has studied along with 15 other new engines but feels that they all fall short of the OPOC’s potential). Lotus plans to license the technology but not build engines itself. EcoMotors, Runkle says, intends to use Qualcomm’s model. They both sell chip sets they make themselves and they license their technology to others, creating de facto industry standards. EcoMotors will build motors themselves for sale to non-automotive customers. He contends that no matter the application, power generation, marine, pumps, helicopters, diesel-electric locomotives, whatever you need an ICE for, the OPOC is a superior choice. It runs efficiently at both steady speeds, good for power generation and in use in range extended EVs, and under direct load from the driving wheels. OPOC architecture will also be licensed to major automakers and engine manufacturers.

The central location of the electrically operated coupling clutch between the modules seems ideal for integrating an electric motor so I asked about hybrid plans. I was shown a diagram of what they call a “tribrid”, a two module engine with an electric motor integrated into the transaxle. OPOC’s suitability for genset applications and compact size would make it ideal for range extended EVs. While I’m on the subject of hybrids, Runkle and Hurden both said that EcoMotors is not at all involved with the electromagnetic hybrid ICE engine that Bill Gates and his associates have patented through Intellectual Ventures, his IP enterprise.

Though they’ll gladly sell motors and technology that would be used in hybrid vehicles, Runkle is convinced that the OPOC is by itself superior to hybrid and EV technologies in terms of overall cost and environmental impact.

In comparison to conventional ICEs, not only does the simpler design mean lower production costs, Runkle anticipates that the cost of building the production line itself will be 30% lower than with a conventional engine, and converting an existing plant to OPOC production would yield even greater savings. The lower cost of entry is a selling point to developing countries like China and India.

With Runkle’s background running Buick’s racing program, and Colleti’s background building SVT products at Ford, I asked about motorsports and performance cars. At first Runkle, who headed development of some fairly high performance production, concept and racing cars, said that he’d already done that and was interested in an efficient, cost effective powerplant. Then he smiled and said, that the OPOC would make a “phenomenal racing engine” and proceeded to tick off what made it an ideal racing powerplant: high specific output, low weight, low aero, and low cg. He then said that it would “probably be outlawed” and that in any case racing was “not in the budget”.

When I asked for a time frame to production, Runkle said that he hoped there’d be OPOCs in production in some form within 3 years. When I asked him where he saw the company in 10 years, he said that it’d be a billion dollar company, selling millions of engines, that famous car companies and well known engine suppliers would be producing OPOCs of their own designs, making their own improvements, paying royalties.ed.

“We feel that we have the engine and technology for all reciprocating ICE’s.”

When I alluded to Zhongding’s “investment”, Runkle took pains to say that they “are not an investor, they are a customer”. EcoMotors is developing a variant of their engines for Zhongding and that the letter of intent is being formalized into a contract.

In terms of deals with other companies, the OEM automakers have shown “a lot of interest” even though EcoMotors has not made a lot of presentations, pitches and road shows. During our interview, Runkle was running through an abbreviated PowerPoint presentation they use for investors and potential customers, but so far the haven’t really marketed the concept. They have no communications staff and what marketing they are doing is being handled by an outside firm, PCGCampbell.

Runkle said that nobody’s thrown them out of an office yet, but that they want to be sure that their game is good before they start marketing the idea seriously. A $350 market is the big leagues.

In the second chapter of Pirke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, the concept of wisdom is discussed. Rabbi Shimon says, ” Who is wise: One who sees something from its birth”. The ability to see the end from the beginning, the possible consequences or opportunities from a situation, both the good and the bad, is indeed one of those things that separates the wise from the foolish. I’m sure that from their excitement, EcoMotors thinks that they are midwifing the birth of a great new thing. Time will tell how wise they are.

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Interview: Jaguar Chief Designer Ian Callum Mon, 04 Jan 2010 16:03:25 +0000 Callum, center, at the GM Heritage Center (copyright: TTAC)

Few aspects of the automobile are as examined, analyzed and obsessed upon as styling. Ask most people about cars and they won’t talk about engine displacement or suspension setup; it’s the physical presence of cars that captures interest and sparks passion. For a niche luxury brand like Jaguar, which  survives on the margins of major markets without the backing of a full-line automaker, the art and science of auto styling is of supreme importance. Unable to match its rivals in the technological arms race of the upper-echelon luxury segment, Jaguar’s relevance is perhaps more tied to its ability to create compelling designs than any other modern brand. Were this the only challenge facing Jaguar’s chief designer Ian Callum, his job would be one of the most interesting in the business. Thanks to Jaguar’s nearly 40-year stylistic stasis however, Callum’s tenure is nothing less than one of the most significant in the history of automotive design.

Callum’s brief begins with a deceptively simple question: what is a Jaguar? The lack of easy answers indicates the enormity of the challenge. Is the brand a last bastion of old-world throwback luxury, as evidenced by an XJ flagship which went without a significant restyle for nearly 40 years? Is it a purveyor of retro-styled, also-ran sports sedans like the recently departed S-Type? Or is it a quasi-volume, entry-luxury brand, destined to do battle with the Buicks of the world with such models as the late, unlamented X-Type? Or is Jaguar a low-volume sportscar maker, battling with Aston Martin for the hearts and minds of Anglophile speed freaks?

callum3Ask the average consumer, and you might receive any one of those answers. Indeed, the Ford managers which guided Jaguar’s fate for nearly 20 years seem to have run with each of these visions at one time or another. Had Jaguar been blessed with a deep development budget, lending its every model with the kind of technological halo enjoyed by brands like Mercedes and Lexus, it might have gotten away with such a diffuse identity. Stylistically though, there’s little middle ground between a classic XJ (let alone its mini-me, the X-Type) and a modern XK. Creating a modern, relevant Jaguar brand had to start with a single decision.

In light of the new models introduced under Callum’s supervision, the sleek new XK, XF and XJ, the remaking of Jaguar might seem as simple as moving the brand away from a decades-long overindulgence in heritage and retro. But, explains Callum with a hint of a smile, Jaguar isn’t torn between heritage and modernity for the simple reason that they are one and the same. “Most people of the world see Jaguars as traditional looking cars,” he admits, “and the XJ was certainly part of that. But what people have forgotten is how radical that design was when it first came out. Jaguar had always made sleek, sexy sportscars, but even the Mk II owners thought it was ‘too much’ for a Jaguar sedan.”

For Callum, everything comes back to 1968 and the release of the XJ. That year a 13-year old Callum submitted his first-ever car design to Jaguar, inspired by the XJ. But where Sir William Lyons’ timeless design gave Callum an icon to strive towards, Jaguar fell victim to the XJ’s brand-eclipsing success. “The sixties was where it stopped,” says Callum of Jaguar’s Lyons-era styling heyday. “I always ask myself ‘what would Sir William have done?’”callum4

But don’t confuse Callum’s mission to recapture the spirit of Jaguar’s golden moment with anything retro. “When Lyons was designing cars, heritage would only have referred to racing,” he explains. Jaguar is fundamentally “a sexy car company,” which meant rebirth required “throwing away the rulebook.” The only rules for designing Jaguars are proportions, he says. Purity of line and a sense of length were the only givens in designing the new XK, XF and XJ.

This open-ended opportunity to imagine where Jaguar would be if it had stayed on the cutting edge of design for the last 40 years required immense discipline. “Cars are dictated by generic dimensions,” says Callum. “Good design is about pushing the boundaries of physics and legislation, going for a milimeter every day.”

Appropriately, Callum’s first Jaguar was the XK sportscar. With echoes of Callum’s most influential design, the Aston-Martin DB7, the XK marked a distinct shift from his previous Jaguar concepts, the curvaceous R-Coupe and segment-busting R-D6. From there, a far greater challenge came in the form of the XF, Callum’s first sedan for Jaguar. “XF was a hurdle,” he admits.

“We can’t do an E class and a CLS,” he says, referring to Mercedes’ approach to luxury market segmentation. A true CLS-style four-door coupe “was too much of a package compromise, so we had to get both.”  The result was a car that convincingly translated the XK’s aesthetic to the four-door format, and created a blueprint for the car that would bring Callum’s experience with Jaguar full circle: the first major restyling of the XJ since 1968.

According to Callum,the new XJ started with the profile of a mk. 1 XJ coupe (a body style he says he’d love to reimagine as a modern Jaguar). Like the original, the new XJ’s design had to be low and long, anchored by the coupe-inspired stretched side window profile. The interior would exhibit the kind of “cheekiness and indulgence” Sir William appreciated. “He might have found it too assertive or overly bold,” concedes Callum, “but you have to put it into context. You have to stand out in today’s world. It’s an agressive, assertive world.”

And in this world, Jaguar won’t be able to sit still, a reality Callum embraces with gusto. “if someone came along and said we’re going to make my XJ for the next 40 years, I’d be pissed,” he says with a grin. “We have to keep changing.” Although there is a sense that the core of Jaguar’s rebirth is complete with the new XJ, Callum can barely restrain his enthusiasm for new models that may or may not be under development. Besides mentioning his desire to create a new XJ Coupe, Callum refuses to deny that an XF wagon might be under development. He even admits that, as a trustee of the independent Jaguar Heritage Trust, he has heard- and approves of- rumblings that modernized C- and D-Type Jags might be developed outside of the Jaguar brand.Jaguar XJ (TTAC/Alex Dykes)

But ask Callum what car he’d most like to design, and he’ll tell you that “for purely selfish reasons,” nothing would make him happier than to design a mid-engine supercar. He’s a huge fan of Chevrolet’s Stingray concept, freely admitting that he wishes he’d designed it. Which might come as a bit of a surprise until Callum reveals himself to be an incurable American car fanatic, with a ’32 Ford and ’57 Chevy in his personal collection. During a three-hour visit to GM’s Heritage Center, Callum positively swooned over everything from Chevy Nomads to the Buick Y-Job, and it was impossible to not see parallels between GM’s attempt to reverse a decades-long malaise and Callum’s personal challenge at Jaguar. Both firms reached a zenith of style and prestige in the late sixties that overshadow everything they have accomplished since, and both are desperate to recapture that lost magic.

Whether Jaguar’s masters approve a mid-engine supercar project remains to be seen, but Callum is convinced that Jaguar “has a right” to play in the rareified air of the supercar market. “Not every company has the right to be there,” he says, “but for Jaguar it’s a natural evolution.” Having revived Jaguar’s natural evolution after 40 years in the deep freeze, Callum knows what he’s talking about. The only question left is whether the magic of the late 1960s is a portable phenomenon: something that can be reanimated outside of its specific historical moment. As Callum wanders through the relics of GM’s glorious past, you can almost see him capturing the elements of that magical period, and translating them to the modern context of plastic grilles and shared-architecture hardpoints. If these, and the thousand other mundanities which separate us from the lost glory of the late sixties can be overcome, Callum’s the guy to do it.

Jaguar XJ (TTAC/Alex Dykes)

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