Ford's Start concept was one of the undeniable stars of Auto China this year. A diminutive five-seat premium car, roughly the size of a Mini, the concept surprised many with its minimalistic design and thoughtful details. Speaking with Freeman Thomas, Design Director at Ford's California-based Strategic Concept Group, CDN learned that the car was born out of an unconventional approach: it was actually modeled before being reversed into sketches.
The clean, timeless design was inspired by the nautilus shell as well as the rounded designs of the Alfa Romeo Zagato SZ and the Porsche 356 Speedster (owned by Thomas himself): "We wanted the car to be soft and endearing," Thomas said. "We love round shapes."
The resulting design is appealing, with a simple yet elegant surface and a friendly demeanor, but it is also a pragmatic and functional vehicle. Simple trim pieces, smooth door handles and a new interpretation of the front grille are joined by slender head- and taillamps with a lattice theme running through them, an element repeated in the C-pillar. Another key element in the brief was that the car had to be lightweight; this is where the idea for the small trunk – instead of the expected hatch – and the 'floating' B-pillar came from. "We needed the structure but we wanted it to float to make it visually lighter," shared Thomas.
A strong shoulder that blends into the surrounding surface aft of the rear wheel is also an interesting element of the design, fading out like a brush stroke on the bodyside, as is the well-proportioned matte aluminum trim that connects and defines the windscreen, DLO and backlight.
The interior also presents interesting features worth mentioning, such as the IP that sits on top of the dash so it can be easily adapted for left- and right-hand drive applications, and the floating front seats that mimic the curve of those on the 356. The rear seat features an unbroken curvature, enabling rear passengers to sit in a lounge-like space, amplifying comfort levels.
The Zero was one of the surprises of the Beijing show, and represents the best example of the new ‘Facet Flow' MG form language that the design teams in Shanghai and UK have been developing. In terms of exterior surfaces, this car appears close to production and SAIC expects the Zero to compete with the Ford Fiesta and Fiat's Grande Punto to attract entry-level younger customers. Program Manager Sam Sun explained the thinking behind the design: "There's a misunderstanding by many younger Chinese buyers about what a sporty car should be – there's real confusion with aftermarket customizing, which is not our aim."
The sporty feeling is taken further than the MG6, with a greater emphasis on the dominant lower grille, use of a lozenge pattern throughout, including grille, door handles, DI lamps and texture in the lower grille, and a roof featuring a see-through abstracted union flag motif. The Zero uses an all-new platform from SAIC, called EP, which crucially allows for fitment of larger wheels than is the norm in China, to ensure a more European stance to the car.
The best part of the Zero is undoubtedly the interior, which demonstrates a higher level of sophistication and new ideas compared to most concepts seen here today. A slim horizontal console connects to the driver's seat in a quasi-octagon motif, and a lower center console runs through into the rear seat. The lozenge theme is continued in the seats, which feature red MG logos that illuminate through the fabric. Further red highlights are created using LEDS in the door lining, steering wheel rim, plus ambient lighting used in the footwells. "We've decided to offer this high contrast black and white theme on one trim level for production too" explains Sam Sun. Overall, the interior reminds in some ways of a sportier version of the VW Up! but that's not to detract from the freshness of the design quality. SAIC expects production to start later this year, with sales in Europe targeted in their plans.
Chana is one of the biggest winners in the rapidly-changing Chinese car market. With sales up 92 percent in 2009 to 518,000, they're the best performing domestic brand now with the entry-level Green Star being a top-selling model. There's long been an association with Italian design houses, coordinated from their European studio in Turin, headed by design chief Luciano d'Ambrosio, but talking with him he confirmed that the Green-i concept was designed purely in the China studio.
We liked the tough, bulldog-like styling to this concept and the way the upright A-pillars roots the car directly to the front wheels. It's a stance that some designers we spoke to reminded a little of the Peugeot BB concept from Frankfurt, although the Green-i is less extreme in terms of surface language and front screen angle. Adding to this stance is the lean-forward rear end and the neat way the roof dips sharply under the rear spoiler to emerge as the top plane of the vast rear lamps. While the styling is commendably bold, the longer we stared at it the more the packaging seems unconvincing. The steering wheel is placed mid-way along the door with a vast IP in front of it, forcing the seats a long way rearward, so far that the occupants' heads are aft of the B-pillar – so much so that the roof needs that blown bulge simply to provide headroom.
The pale blue and gloss white interior features a simple floating door pad and bright blue illumination behind it, an intricate printed circuit pattern in the seat fabric and a pale oak finish to the small rear trunk shelf and the cabin floor. With less extreme packaging and better detailing, this could have been one of the stars of the show.