Invaluable Automotive Insight From Tom Gale and Chris Theodore
What are we most excited about when it comes to Car of the Year? Other than the cars? And the tacos? Our two legendary guest judges, Tom Gale and Chris Theodore. The chance to hang out with either one of them for five minutes is the stuff car guy dreams are made of. But hanging with both of them for a week, every year, like clockwork? It’s the kind of schooling you can’t get in school. The knowledge, as London cabbies say, is invaluable. From car design to engineering to manufacturing to product planning to never-to-be-repeated industry dirt told to us at dusk over Scotch and cigars, we Motor Trend editors are the luckiest car folks on the planet.
Who are they? Tom Gale is one of America’s greatest car designers, most famous for his work with Chrysler products. His design portfolio is too vast to list, but some standouts are the first Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, the 1994 Dodge Ram, and the PT Cruiser. Tom is also widely known for his breathtaking concept cars, including the Thunderbolt, the Atlantic, and the Barracuda. Tom is a longtime judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Chris Theodore was the head of engineering at Chrysler then Ford, working on a products ranging from the second-generation minivan and Neon to the Viper at Chrysler and the S-197 fifth-generation Mustang at Ford. He’s most widely known for his work on the mid-engine Viper, which eventually became the Ford GT.
One of my favorite parts of our Car of the Year scrutinizing is when Chris and Tom line up various contenders—typically but not always the finalists—and go over why the cars look the way they look and why they’re built the way they’re built. It’s a master’s class in modern automobiles. For example, this year Tom and Chris grouped the cars by country of origin. You may not see it from 50 feet away, but hey, the Civic, Maxima, Miata, and Mirai all do have similar design traits. Same for the Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen products. Americans as a group, and Korean cars, too. Fascinating stuff.
We realize how valuable this knowledge is and figured we should share as much of it with our readers as we can. These are the same notes we incorporate into our written capsules about the cars. Tom’s notes tend to concentrate on vehicle design. Chris’ are more concerned with engineering. Both are adept at describing what Angus calls the big picture. And yes, just like in real life, Chris is a wee bit chattier than Tom. Without further ado, we present to you the highlights from Tom Gale and Chris Theodore’s notes about the finalists from the 2016 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
Tom Gale on the Audi TT
The new TT is refined in terms of its platform and design execution. The interior fits and execution of surfaces, finishes, and material usage are still exemplary, but the world has caught up. Exterior fits like the hood to fender joint and the quality of the stampings provide for a remarkable result in any class. The refinement of previous models is probably noticeable to Audi enthusiasts but may not be apparent to many others. And there are some pretty amazing competitive choices at the price point.
Chris Theodore on the Audi TT
Fit and finish is incredible, especially considering that the body is largely made of hard-to-form aluminum. The clamshell hood cutline is as sharp as the blade of a stiletto and so is the precision forming of the character lines. Audi does this not because they need to, but to demonstrate their capability and quietly signal the quality of construction.
Aerodynamic function was considered, as well. The decklid of the TT is now squared off to reduce both lift and drag, yet none of the TT essence is lost. A retracting rear spoiler, however, is still fitted for stability at speed.
Audi is off to a good start on making controls simple and intuitive again. The very novel AC vents provide an example of this new philosophy. Fan speed, temperature, air distribution, and mode all controlled at the center of the circular vents. No searching around, just intuitively move your hand to the thing you want to control. You can even turn on the driver and passenger air curtains by touching their respective left and right vents.
The Audi TT Quattro has matured into a true sports car. What started as a custom-bodied econobox (think Karmann Ghia) now performs like a sports car should. Still, the road to get there is not the simplest, nor is it the most direct. Take a flexible C-car platform, add the weight and complexity of AWD, widen the track, fit performance chassis hardware, and then add an aluminum body to offset all the added weight—while still using the ubiquitous 2.0L VW turbocharged engine.
Tom Gale on the BMW 750i xDrive M Sport
The new 750i is an interesting demonstration of technical capability regarding chassis and body content features. The interior content both front and rear are approaching a level never dreamed of a few years ago, such as armrest touch screens, removable smartpads, entertainment screens, seat features, and on and on. The materials are very well done in terms of color, grain, and gloss, but there is not much new in terms of design. The same can be said for the exterior design: great execution of all the standard BMW theme elements but not much we haven’t seen before, and it remains to be seen whether this is enough for the segment.
Chris Theodore on the BMW 750i xDrive M Sport
The rear looks a lot like a Lexus with a soft spoiler form on the decklid. In fact, while Tom Gale and I were searching for the BMW in the parking lot, we mistook a Lexus for the BMW from about 50 yards away! Whereas the S-Class Mercedes evokes a true luxury presence on the road and also establishes a new design direction for subsequent models, the BMW does not look particularly stately and does not establish a new halo image for the brand. Clearly, this is a missed opportunity in the U.S., but it may not be of consequence to Chinese buyers, to whom the 750i is targeted.
The gestation period for a new BMW model is about seven years, and one gets the impression that deep into the development of the 750i, BMW was caught out by the breakthrough S-Class. Without time to rethink the interior and exterior design, it seems like BMW management asked the research department to grab every technology they had on the shelf and throw it into the car. They must have thought that if they couldn’t lead with great design, they could overwhelm potential customers with technology—some of which is successful, some unsuccessful, and some (gesture control) just plain silly.
Tom Gale on the Chevrolet Camaro
The Camaro has a new platform with evolutionary design. The design strategy is understandable and hopefully will last for the cycle. The surface handling is fresh, and the line work is great. The biggest area of visual change is likely the C-pillar and quarter window area for most people. Wheel to body, gesture, and overall graphics add to a very nimble appearance, especially the rear three-quarter view. The interior and instrument panel have good finishes, and grain and gloss levels are very good. Panel ends integrate nicely with the somewhat busy door trim panels.
Chris Theodore on the Chevrolet Camaro
Interestingly, I had assumed that the Camaro would have the same wheelbase as the Cadillac ATS, but in fact has been stretched 1.4 inches, presumably to accommodate the V-8 and larger wheels/tires without getting too much weight over the front wheels. Camaro owners will certainly notice the new car, and it should please them. However, I doubt the general public will be able to distinguish new from old. An exterior design with more reach might have been able to attract new buyers to the Camaro ranks.
The air vents should have been raised about 3 inches to improve distribution of cool air to the head and upper torso and also would have allowed for a cubby bin below, increasing the limited interior storage. Raising the center display also would have improved visibility without destroying the instrument panel’s design theme. BMW, M-B, and Audi have all mounted higher freestanding displays without upsetting aesthetics. Finally, the squared-off forms behind the mouse ears block visibility over the lowered cowl. Unless they are saving space for future HUD display hardware, they need to be shaved off.
The Camaro SS handles better and is quicker than luxury competitors costing tens of thousands more—the very fact that it nearly ties the old Z/28 in every performance category and does it without the optional magnetic ride suspension makes us anxiously await the higher-performance models that are yet to come.
Tom Gale on the Honda Civic
The new Civic seems to have grown in size visually and displays a new surface language. The proportion is reasonable and generous compared to the segment, but the design and surface execution are over the topâtoo much surface activity with lines and surface breaks that create reflections, and highlights that are out of control. The humpy feel of the front fender and quarter panel is most bothersome. The interior is generally good for the segment, and the two-tone color combination is pleasing. Materials are mostly soft-touch with some gloss issues on hard, unpainted injection-molded parts.
Chris Theodore on the Honda Civic
The all-new Honda Civic is a bold new approach for Honda. Rather than evolutionary improvement, Honda is looking to make a serious statement, address past criticisms, and become the leader in the compact class.
The new Civic carries on the recent Honda design trend of too many character lines, including separate, meandering lines over the front and rear wheel arches. While some of these lines and surfaces don’t quite work, they have been toned down a bit from past efforts and are less objectionable. The front end is dominated by a gaudy chrome bar that swoops down from the headlights to surround the Honda “H” logo. The rear end is also overly fussy with boomerang-shaped taillights that reach a little too far inboard, forcing a strange decklid shape that detracts from the tapered fastback buttresses.
Despite this critique, I feel most Americans will find the new Civic attractive and more upscale-looking than competitive compact sedans. With a little more finesse and restraint, the Civic could have been quite stunning. I’d call the Civic’s overall style “Japanese modern.” I’ll have to wait and see the new Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze in person to decide which design is best in class. I still long for the days when Pininfarina secretly designed early Hondas such as the great CRX. Pininfarina is now gone, and so is the elegant lightness, restraint and simplicity of early Honda design.
All in all, The Honda Civic looks to be a very strong entry in the compact class and likely best in class when a comparison test is done. We’ll have to wait until the new Cruze and Elantra arrive to find out.
Tom Gale on the Mazda MX-5 Miata
An interesting update for the Miata with improvements to the basic platform without losing any of the cachet. The exterior benefits from the package and dimensions with great graphics in all views. The surfacing is curious in that it is somewhat inconsistent with the line work. The shapes over the front fenders are a little soft and/or rearward of an expected peak, and the shape in the quarter area seems arbitrary. All in all, the car still looks very nice even with the above quibbles. The interior is simple and cheerful.
Chris Theodore on the Mazda MX-5 Miata
Curiously, I noted that under certain crosswinds between 70 and 85 mph (113 and 137 km/h) with the door glass up, you get a brief rasping (farting) noiseâit might be a problem on someone’s first date. The ride is, of course, pretty pitchy on the choppy road, but it’s not that much worse than some of the sedans we tested. Ride is reasonably smooth and quiet over tar strips and coarse gravel, but that may be because all you can hear is wind noise with the top down.
Unfortunately, the top becomes noisy at 70 mph (113 km/h), with both the rear cloth and backlite fluttering and pumping noise into the cabin. Although this is a car that you want to drive with the top down, there are convertibles that are much less noisy with the top up. I suspect that part of the problem is that Mazda leaves the top cloth tension a little loose to allow for easy operation. There should be more they can do to minimize the racket.
Automotive enthusiasts should be ever grateful to Mazda for saving the classic sports car. They resisted the temptation of longer lower, wider “product-planning-itis.” Mazda went back to their roots and came up with a sports car that is an even greater accomplishment than the original. It’s shorter, nearly as light (despite years of increasing regulation), faster, handles far better, and is a great value. I wish they would have quieted down the convertible top, but this is the perfect vehicle to delight all the senses with the top down. More voluptuous styling is a missed opportunity but irrelevant to the enthusiast. Perhaps Fiat can add a little Italian flair to the MX-5 when its sibling arrives.
Tom Gale on the Mercedes-AMG GT S
AMG definitely had Porsche in mind when seen from the rear view. The overall proportion and design are well executed, and when taking the long view of the line work, the front fender peak in relation to the line coming from the side vent and rear quarter upper surface are restrained and very nicely executed. One proportional issue in the same long side view is that an overly long and heavy appearance in the front is the result of the disparity between the side view of the fender peak and the hood centerline, where the visual weight is seemingly too far forward and somewhat low at the cowl. Overall, it’s an exciting and remarkable effort.
Chris Theodore on the Mercedes-AMG GT
AMG was very resourceful when developing the GTS. It is essentially made up of the best pieces from the Mercedes’ parts bin. Amazingly, the car ends up being more than the sum of the parts.
I found the design of the long front end quite appealing, as it carries forward Mercedes’ racing heritage. The roofline is designed to bring back memories of the gullwing. However, I find the roof over-crowned cross-car, and the windscreen touchdown has a little too abrupt of an angle to the hood, giving the illusion of a car that is broken at the base of the windshield. Had AMG let the hood form continue to rise rearward of the wheel centerline, I do not think this would have been a problem.
It is the rear of the vehicle that is the most contentious, especially from the side. It appears to be too short and mimics the Porsche 911, its chief rival. Others see the Porsche 928 rear end, especially in the taillights. The drooping tail is not the best solution for aerodynamics or downforce, so a spoiler is deployed at speed. In any event, I believe the car would look more balanced with a longer rear overhang. Purely from the rear, however, the stance with bulging rear fenders is just awesome, even if it looks a bit like a Ruf Porsche.
Nitpicking aside, I’d love to have one in my garage. Better yet, give me the upcoming convertible, hopefully with a longer tail—like the original 300 SL roadster—and it just might seduce me.
Tom Gale on the Toyota Mirai
The first production fuel cell available for sale and a remarkable engineering accomplishment. The chassis and packaging seem to be well-developed and very capable as viewed and tested. On the other hand, the appearance is remarkable but for a different reason. The idea of being visually different to signal change in line with the technology is probably a sound idea, but this seems a step too far.
Chris Theodore on the Toyota Mirai
Like the original Prius, the Toyota Mirai exterior design is deliberately unique to attract attention so an owner can demonstrate their environmental responsibility. Unlike the Prius, however, the Mirai cannot even be considered cute. It is ungainly, and to many, it’s downright hideous to look at.
Part of these unusual looks are due to the functional needs of the hydrogen fuel cell system and aerodynamics. However, many of the low points, such as the huge outboard front cooling openings that look like a squirrel whose jowls are packed with acorns or the inverse triangular taillights that overhang the body side, are just visually irritating.
The fuel cell system does impose some vehicle proportions that are difficult to disguise. There are enough proportional challenges to stump any designer. The front overhang is excessive to accommodate the five cooling systems in front of the FWD electric motor. The package is tall because the driver sits over the fuel cell stack. Rear seat passengers sit over one of the hydrogen tanks. The other huge hydrogen tank and battery pack are located over the rear axle. More rear overhang is required for luggage space. And the Mirai is narrow to minimize cross-sectional area for reduced aerodynamic drag.
The Toyota Mirai is a hard vehicle to rate. On the one hand, value is excellent. Where else can you purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars of low-volume, high-tech hardware for $56K USD, including three years of hydrogen? On the other hand, the car is not a $56K USD value versus other real-world vehicles, so I rated it low. Design may be what Toyota wanted, but this car has a face that only Toyota could love. Toyota has demonstrated its engineering prowess with the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and I believe they have made great progress reducing fuel cell costs.
The Mirai is a great technological achievement for Toyota. It’s indeed a very pleasant car to drive on short commuter trips and would be a great car to take on a cruise cross-country—if only fuel were available. At $56,000 USD, even with free fuel, the Mirai is only for people that want to make an ecological statement. Had Toyota wrapped their fuel cell technology in a beautiful, luxurious vehicle, they might have been able to attract more buyers at an even higher price. It could have been the next big automotive fashion statement after Tesla.