China may be the world's fastest-growing automotive market, but so far homegrown Chinese car design has proven unimaginative at best. The generic econoboxes and clones of aging Audis are the result of years of knock-down kits, alliances with Western automakers and an automotive market where few ordinary Chinese could participate until recently.
However, China's automotive design language is slowly evolving. While the majority of designs for indigenous vehicles are drawn by — or at least inspired by — Western carmakers, events such as the Auto China show in Shanghai have given Chinese designers a chance to explore a signature Chinese style.
"Chinese automakers, just like the Korean and Japanese automakers before them, are beginning to develop designs with their own design language," said Eric Gallina, editor of Car Design News.
The publication sponsored recently sponsored Car Design Awards China, a competition for young Chinese automotive designers. We're showing you the winners of that competition in each of the judged categories, from an insect-inspired hovercraft to a stereotypical luxury sedan with a name that'll make you carsick.
Straight from the award ceremony in Beijing, here's the best of Chinese automotive design.
The overall winner was the Peugeot VLV, from designer Yi Lu. The spiritual successor to Peugeot's Voiture Légére de Ville electric microcar, it combines public and private transportation. Drive around town and plug in when you get home, or hop on the highway and join a "road train," sharing battery power in series with other vehicles. Packing that many cars into a row is a great solution for Beijing's notorious traffic jams, and multiple cars sharing available battery power also showcases a communal ethic.
Lu is a two-time award winner from Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, whose design was praised by European judges for being uniquely Chinese, incorporating design elements from Chinese culture into a fluid vehicle.
"Automotive design in China appears to be maturing, with more designers learning the profession — be it abroad or at the numerous design schools popping up all over China," said Gallina. "Generally speaking, their designs appear to be less naive."
Mao Feiyi did a better job reinterpreting a Mercedes-Benz classic. While the connection with the rotary-engined C111 may not have been intentional, the F125'S design clearly makes it a spiritual successor. We love the teardrop profile, outrageous two-tone paint and angular LED headlamps.
The LEDs may even become a signature of Chinese automotive design. "The Chinese 'own' light," Gallina said. "While in Shanghai, we also witnessed LED lights being used to accentuate featureliness and within wheels on some concept cars. I think this is a trend to watch in the future."
Close your eyes and picture a Chinese-designed ultra-luxe sedan. Do you see an overwrought S-Class clone with a name that translates poorly into English? So did designer Tan Xiao, whose Nausica (we're not kidding) looks like an S550 penned by Pixar. No doubt this one could get use as a parade car with the retractable roof, and chauffeurs will appreciate the obtuse door-open angle.
"For the moment, what appeals to the Chinese market seems to be a cliché of 'luxury,' as defined by dark-colored three-box sedans mostly from European brands," said Gallina, speaking generally about China's taste for high-end vehicles. "The well-established Western brands are clearly still the most sought-after, aspirational models."
While it may not be the most original car, the Nausica is the most realistic in the competition, and it does have a pretty interior.
As China is the world's most populous country and home to some of the most densely populated cities on earth, it's interesting that Chinese designers are taking the physical footprint of new vehicles into account.
Han Dong's Citroen Cπ — short for Cute Pie — may have a silly name, but multidirectional spherical wheels that spin like electrons around the car body allow it to turn in nearly any direction. The vehicle body will even spin on top of the car chassis, making reverse gear obsolete.
If RVing is catching on in China, it'll experience a boom if the Peugeot Hoome ever gets built. Ling Yuzhou drew this winner of the Lifestyle category, a toaster of a van with a highly convertible interior for those with active lifestyles. It's even accessible for those with limited mobility, so grandma and grandpa can come along for the ride!
With a bamboo body shell and exterior accents that look like lotus blossoms, Gui Qi's Xiake concept is ready for the wild. It's fitting, then, that it's named after Ming Dynasty-era explorer Xu Xiake. Interestingly, the driver of this car can choose to sit upright or prone. In the latter position, the vehicle's articulated wheels become an extension of the user's own limbs.
With an artificial chloroplast outer layer, designer Wu Peng's Power Cyton could aptly be named Leaf if only that badge weren't already taken. Just as design teams participating in the LA Auto Show Design Challenge fell in love with organic materials, the Chinese design community is also showing love for cars that emulate plants.
A car design competition without a hovercraft is like a day without orange juice. The people's choice award went to Cheng Shaowei's Dancing Butterfly, a ribbon-shaped hovercraft that sends compressed air through open "wings," propelling the vehicle forward.
Zhang Honghu's Peugeot concept can travel on both land and sea, perfect for China's expanding harborside and riverside cities. On the water, the rear wheels tuck in and fenders fold together to form a hull. It's a futuristic concept in line with the modern buildings that make up the skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Lest you think these designs never make it to three dimensions, we present a full-scale, drivable concept car from award sponsor and Chinese car carrozzeria Sicar. It's attractive and aggressive — we love the wraparound taillamps and retro scoops on the C-pillars. Perhaps we'll even be seeing it soon on the roads of Beijing.
This story originally appeared on Wired.com's Autopia on July 29, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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