For three years, Dany Garand, a designer at Audi, labored to make the next version of the company's flagship luxury sedan, the A8, as stately, dynamic and well-proportioned as possible. Then he got a new boss.
Walter de'Silva, who arrived in 2002 to take charge of design for the Audi group in the Volkswagen organization, decreed that the car should have a new trademark grille -- a large upright trapezoid inspired by the 1930s racecars of Auto Union, an early parent company of Audi. In making the new grille fit, Garand was faced with a task as bloody as the swap of physiognomies conducted by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in the 1997 film Face/Off.
The grille is not just a feature of the car's face, it is a keynote of its design. That grilles are getting bigger -- taller in particular -- was quite evident at this year's Detroit auto show, which opened for media previews of new models on Jan. 9.
The supersize Audi grille has since spread from A8 sedans equipped with the top-of-the-line W-12 engine to the redesigned A6 model, and it will be on the new A4 that arrives in the US this spring.
Chrysler's 300 sedan wears a grille that is huge in proportion to the car's overall size, reminiscent of old Bentleys; the scaled-up grille implies that there is a bigger, hungrier engine behind it. It screams "Hemi V-8," even if a particular 300 is fitted with a less ferocious V-6. Chrysler's designers have used this approach before, as in Dodge pickups with grilles that mimicked the look of Mack and Kenworth trucks.
Subaru has a lot riding on a new look it unveiled at the Detroit show. The rounded triangular grille of its B9 Tribeca, a seven-seat sport utility wagon, is the key to fresh design motifs aimed at revising the company's image, according to Andreas Zapatinas, the Tribeca's designer. Previously used on design studies shown in Europe and Japan, the grille is inspired by the cross section of an aircraft fuselage and the intake of a jet engine, Zapatinas said.
The revised styling suggests Subaru's new design language, based on the idea that aircraft engineering principles also apply to automobiles. But some see other messages in its expression.
"The raised upper lip of the grille and the downward slope at the corners of the grille's mouth bring to mind words like `bitter' and `snarly,'" said Daniel Hill, president of Sensory Logic, a marketing firm that interprets facial expressions for corporate clients, when asked to apply his techniques to the Subaru.
The Audi grille has been, well, polarizing. The British magazine Autocar referred to it as a "snout."
"Have you pulled out your pictures of the Edsel recently and compared them with the Audi?" asked J Mays, group vice president for design at Ford, who was once in charge of Audi design.
Mays is bucking the trend to bigger and taller grilles, at least on passenger cars. On future Fords, beginning with next year's Fusion sedan, the grille will be three horizontal bars, a relatively simple look foreshadowed in 2003 on the 427 concept car.