General Motors, whose typical cash cows include trucks and sport utility vehicles, is profiting recently from a long-ignored segment ― the mini city car.
With higher gasoline prices and growing appetite for smaller cars, the U.S. auto giant last year newly added the Spark mini car to its Chevrolet global lineup.
The Spark, overcoming earlier skepticism among GM executives and dealers, sold 12,385 vehicles in the six months up to December. The researcher IHS Automotive forecasts the sales figure could reach some 27,000 this year.
“The Korean design team has a special affection for the Spark as it is the first Chevy model to be designed and built in Korea. The positive start in the U.S. encourages us a lot,” said Ryu Ho-kwang, a senior designer at GM Korea.
|GM Korea designers (from left) Jin Bang-guk, Gang Su-ni and Ryu Ho-kwang (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)|
When it comes to small-car models, design is considered especially critical as such vehicles have few other ways to differentiate themselves. And behind the Spark’s unique styling is the design team at GM Korea.
When GM decided to roll out the smallest Chevy, its design centers globally, except the one in Korea, had no experience in building mini cars.
There are about 200 designers at the Korean unit’s design studio in Incheon. Aside from some leadership positions, most of the team is Korean.
Even though the Chevrolet Spark shared its chassis with the Matiz city car that was being produced in Korea, designing the unprecedented Chevy model was a totally different issue for the Korean team.
“Our top priority, among other things, was succeeding the identity of the Chevrolet brand,” said Ryu, who joined then-Daewoo Motor in 1992 and took part in designing the nation’s first city car, the Tico, whose huge popularity helped it become known as the “people’s car.”
Designers wanted to shed some negative prejudice about small cars that are sometimes intimidated by larger sedans on the road. So they imposed a more dynamic, stronger look into the car while enhancing safety overall.
“We focused on three key words: simple, strong and sculpture. Of course we had to pay attention to the tight budget, but didn’t want it to feel cheap or chintzy,” said Jin Bang-guk, an exterior designer.
The Spark, with its price tag starting at $12,995 in the U.S., may not be sexier than its competitors like the Mini or the Fiat 500. But the four-door car offers a far more spacious interior, including more habitable rear seats.
Designers also gave flavor to its sleek, sometimes masculine, look with eye-catching car colors with evocative names such as Jalapeno, Lemonade and Denim.
Such car coloring is relatively new in Korea, where more than 80 percent of car color choices are limited to neutral hues such as black, white and gray.
“Company officials grumbled especially about the pink color,” said Gang Su-ni, an assistant manager at the color trim team, citing Monaco Pink, the color inspired by the late Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly.
But now pink is the second-best-selling color in Korea for the Spark, with 22 percent of color choices last year, just behind the Sapporo White, she added.
Michael Simcoe, who oversees GM’s design centers both in Korea and Australia, agrees that the Korean-flavored Spark is recognized and appreciated in global markets.
“Acceptance of the Spark represents a change in the U.S. market. Its use of color and the interior space mean the Spark is not seen as a traditional low-cost mini car,” he said.
In the U.S., most Spark customers are seniors, college students and housewives ― previously non-GM customers.
The Korean team is currently putting the finishing touches on its electric version that will hit the market later this year.
“The electric Spark will lead GM’s electric car efforts. Based on our accumulated expertise, we will continue to secure the competitive edge in the mini car segment,” said Ryu who has already started the 2014 Spark project.
By Lee Ji-yoon (email@example.com)