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What Americans want, according to Fiat design boss Ramaciotti

Mon, 06 Dec 2010

American cars are big; European cars are small. And it's always been that way. But that old distinction may be diminishing, says Fiat Group design boss Lorenzo Ramaciotti. In fact, he thinks that the size of U.S. and European vehicles eventually will converge as fuel economy standards become more strict.

Still, other differences will remain. Interior packaging, for example. Ramaciotti (rah-mah-CHOHT'-tee) says Americans want more space in the front, while in Europe roominess for rear-seat passengers is the big issue.

Ramaciotti is at work on the sedan that will mark the return of Alfa Romeo to the United States. He won't be swayed too much by U.S. tastes. He says the new Alfa won't be designed as an American car because "then it would not be an Alfa."

The 62-year-old designer oversees an extensive portfolio: five car brands (Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Maserati); small, medium and heavy trucks at Fiat Professional and Iveco; buses at Irisbus; and farm and construction equipment at Case New Holland's four brands.

In 1973, Ramaciotti joined Pininfarina, Italy's famed design house and coach builder. The four production cars he is most proud of from his Pininfarina days are the Ferrari 456 GT and 599 GTB Fiorano, the Maserati GranTurismo and the Peugeot 407 coupe.

After 32 years at Pininfarina--and almost two years into his retirement--Ramaciotti joined Fiat in June 2007. Staff Reporter Luca Ciferri interviewed Ramaciotti in Turin, Italy.

When did you see Chrysler's design center for the first time, and what did you think?

It was May 2009, when the alliance between Fiat and Chrysler was about to happen. I met a very competent and talented team guided by Ralph Gilles, which is driving with great passion and energy an organization that has had a significant place in modern American automotive design--from the creation of the first minivan to the cab-forward sedans, not to mention dozens of great show cars.

I found very impressive headquarters in Auburn Hills and a typical American Product Design Office, where designers, modelers and feasibility engineers work all together in the same physical space.

How is that different from Fiat?

Here we have designers in their brand studios, engineers in their office and the various model workshops separated. People converge to the workshop when needed.

On the technical side, at Fiat we work more on virtual reality, a technology we began pioneering in the 1990s. We now do most of the surface refining before building the first physical model. At Chrysler they still work more with clay models. But these different approaches do not change the picture, which is to get to the right design at the right time.

What is biggest difference between how Chrysler and Fiat design vehicles?

Roominess for the rear passenger is seen as a marginal item in the U.S., while it is much more important in Europe. Probably it is just a matter of vehicle size. A U.S. product line begins a notch above of what happens in Europe. Here a minicar, like the Fiat 500, is the entry model. In the U.S., you start with subcompacts such as the Ford Fiesta and the Toyota Yaris. In the U.S., subcompacts normally come as sedans, thus being bigger than the hatchback variants sold in Europe.

Here we try to give as much roominess and comfort as possible also to the rear passengers. In the U.S., if you want more rear legroom, you just buy a bigger vehicle.

Vehicles in the United States are not only bigger but also wider than in Europe. Why?

The average consumer in the U.S. wants a significant free space on both his sides; thus you have wider cars that also incorporate wider central consoles.

Americans who buy a German premium car seem to accept a narrower seating position as part of the experience of driving a foreign car. But in buying a domestic car, Americans say they want a wider seating position--and this is one of the reasons to widen [Fiat's] Compact architecture in order to underpin a vast array of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models.

Will the difference in vehicle size continue to exist between the United States and Europe?

The sizes have partly converged in the past 30 years. The first time I got to the U.S., in 1976, American cars looked enormous compared to their European rivals. These days I do not perceive such a marked difference.

I am not expert enough to say how much U.S. cars actually downsized in the last 25 years, but European cars grew considerably. The first VW Golf [Rabbit in the United States] was 3.81 meters long [150 inches]; the sixth generation is 15 percent longer at 4.2 meters [165 inches].

I think that, slowly, size will converge, but I expect a step-by-step process. Only regulatory changes could really permit leapfrog changes. Two years ago, when oil prices were skyrocketing, there was a significant shift of U.S. consumers toward smaller vehicles. As the oil prices returned to normal levels, so did demand for bigger vehicles.

What is your view of the design languages at Chrysler's brands?

The Dodge and Ram brands are clearly tailored to U.S. tastes, with stronger and more evident design signs than what we are used to in Europe. I would say they are 100 percent American.

Jeep is more international. Jeep is the continuation and evolution of an iconic design--the original Willys-Overland of the early 1940s. Every model keeps strong signs that make it recognizable as a Jeep everywhere in the world.

The Chrysler brand is more mainstream, being also closer to European proportions and surface treatment. As a consequence, over time the Chrysler and Lancia brands will share a number of vehicles because they focus on the same type of customer--one who looks for style and elegance.

What trend have you noticed in terms of vehicle architectures?

The disappearance of wagons. The U.S. industry created the wagon, and this body style over time was copied all over the world. In the U.S., minivans first and then also SUVs and crossovers took wagons to extinction.

In Europe, wagons have survived the arrival of minivans, SUVs and crossovers and are still significant. In markets such as Germany and Italy, you find many nameplates--even by premium makers--where wagons outsell the sedan they derive from.

And what about cupholders?

In Europe we joked many times on the relevance of cupholders for the U.S. But we were wrong, because the user profile is completely different. In Europe, we drive cars; thus I have never taken onboard a coffee mug in my life. In the States, you live in your cars, also because the commuting times and distances are longer; thus it is normal to take on board coffee and/or beverages.

How hard was it to insert cupholders in an existing European mini-car, such as the Fiat 500?

Not as tough as you might imagine for the car called "pint-sized" in the U.S. Luckily, we had some available space which permitted us to create an "island" in the central console that could house two full-sized cupholders.

You are working on a mid-sized sedan set to take Alfa Romeo back in the United States after 25 years of absence. How are U.S. requirements influencing your work?

The car should clearly be an Alfa Romeo and thus truly European in its proportions. We are taking into account U.S. requirements such as easy access, roominess, comfort and cupholders. But we should refrain from penning an American sedan, because it won't be an Alfa.

By Luca Ciferri- Automotive News