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Design Q&A: 'Three-box' sedans are out, says Cadillac

Posted by Keith Griffin  April 20, 2010 01:29 PM

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(Keith Griffin for

Cadillac director of exterior design Max Wolff stands by the CTS-V at the New York International Auto Show.

NEW YORK—Max Wolff, director of exterior design for Cadillac, is best known for his design work on the popular Holden brand (that inspired the Pontiac G8 in the U.S.) in his native Australia. His work has been drawing praise lately on such vehicles as the Cadillac CTS Coupe and CTS-V Wagon. He sat down with at the New York International Auto Show to discuss the future of automotive design.

Congratulations on the CTS-V Wagon. It’s a great looking people mover. How does one design a station wagon that stops people dead in their tracks like this?

It was relatively easy because the sedan was so good. It has a wide track and low roof. We just had to graft on the back of it and add some big wheels and tires. I won’t say it was easy, but it was relatively painless. We’re always looking to evolve with something new and fresh that retains the “Cadillac-ness” of the last 10 years. You can expect similar offerings as with the SRX and the CTS. The Converj [concept] points to where we’re going. We’re operating under the “Art & Science” philosophy with an element more of an art. Proportion continues to play a huge role. Surface and detail will be a little sheerer than you see. Proportions play such a huge role. It’s the same philosophy big or small.

Cadillac is an iconic American brand. What is your design philosophy moving forward with Cadillac? How much world influence will be brought to bear on its exterior designs going forward?

Cadillac will continue to be a niche brand in Europe. It is doing well in Russia and Asia. GM design is truly an international organization. Our design team has people from Korea, Taiwan, France and Germany. It is interesting being an outsider, to some extent, looking in. Growing up in Australia I always had a little bit of interest in Cadillac. The opportunity to work on America’s premier luxury brand was just fantastic.

One Internet writer said of the CTS Coupe, it is among “a long lined-trend of modern vehicle that looks ten times better in person than in photos.” That seems true of a lot of vehicles lately like the Crosstour and the Panamera for example. Why is that?

There is an element of quirkiness that doesn’t always work in 2D while it could in 3D. There has to be a blend of that.

On an online Cadillac video, the sentiment is expressed that exterior design brings people into a product, but interior design makes them buy it. One non-GM designer has said exterior design will be only 5 percent of the decision making process among millennial buyers. Is beauty going to be on the inside in future designs? Will the most popular vehicles come in plain brown wrappers, so to speak?

The exterior of a car is the rolling billboard for the brand. Not so many folks see the interior. They experience it at the dealership. It is the interior that seals the deal. You can’t compromise the exterior of the car for the interior too much. The belt height and roof height and shoulder room could influence the exterior design. The wider track and wheel flares are luxury touches that can be offered on more expensive cars. Econo-cars are more concerned with interior space.

A popular design element across many lines is to make everything resemble a coupe. What’s the motivating philosophy behind that? Why don’t designers want to design sedans and crossovers that look like sedans and crossovers?

The exterior proportions are what are appealing. That starts with luxury cars and trickle-downs. People aren’t interested in purchasing a three-box sedan. A coupe gives a more athletic feel. People want practicality but don’t want to be seen with a family sedan. They want something more expressive.

You have also expressed the notion that watches influence design. It seems as if every high-end manufacturer has a watch to call their own. Why are timepieces so influential on automotive design?

[Wolff laughs] I’m not even wearing a watch. Watches are a good example of something people can relate to very quickly. There really aren’t many pieces of jewelry that men like. Eyeglasses are more conservative. Watches are a precious instrument. It’s a very easy thing for people to understand. I’m actually not a watch fan.

This interview was edited from a longer transcript.

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