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Bryan Nesbitt, Take 2

Slightly more than a year after our first encounter, we check up on his progress in reformulating GM Europe Design.

Bryan Nesbitt has been in his job as Executive Director, GM Europe Design for just over one year, and the changes he promised–revamping Saab’s design staff and process, removing the rest of the structural barriers within GM Europe Design–are starting to take shape. What he probably didn’t expect at the outset was that his new position would require he retain one of his old customers–Saturn. As part of GM’s work at “leveraging” its global capabilities, it’s looking at Opel to assist Saturn. “If you think about Saturn strategically and intentionally appealing to import-minded customers,” says Nesbitt, “we’re producing cars at Opel obviously intended for the European segment, and that will meet this need. It’s a good strategy.” In typical Nesbitt fashion, just as you begin to consciously ask the obvious next question, he answers it. “It will get to the point where they are essentially the same cars.”

This will become apparent with the introduction of the 2007 Saturn Aura sedan: very little will change as it travels across the Atlantic. The same will be true when the Opel Antara concept moves from show car to production and replaces the Saturn Vue. In fact, the softer, more exaggerated forms of the Antara are a signal as to how the Opel design language that began with the present Astra will evolve. “What we don’t want to do is different scale versions of the same car,” Nesbitt warns. “There will be a common identity, but each vehicle will be individual to cover Opel’s high bandwidth.”

While it’s probably true that Saturn won’t take every Opel as its own–the German brand covers a broad swath from commercial vehicles to entry-level luxury cars–it will gain from Opel’s reputation for functionality. “Opel made an imprint with the Meriva and Zafira [respectively, Opel’s small- and medium-size people movers] that transcends class levels,” claims Nesbitt. “So we have to be very pro-active in keeping that invention, without crossing the threshold where you have so many trinkets and baubles that you can’t get your message out to the buyer.”

An even tougher message to deliver will be what Saab stands for. According to Nesbitt, greater differentiation will be seen in the distinction between Saab and the rest of GM’s lineup. The Saab Brand Center in Sweden will be operational early in 2006, and will house a core team of designers, engineers, and marketing types to develop and evolve the Saab brand character, as well as develop future product proposals. “The idea is to create an incubator with a small group that will live and breathe Saab,” says Nesbitt. “They’ll look at component strategy, the interface points–things like the steering wheel, handles, even the door remote–and determine how they work with the visual identity. Building on those cues builds a brand identity that extends across the Saab range, though we’ve purposely stopped short of including an Abba soundtrack in every model.”

While Nesbitt says he doesn’t preclude the Saab team wearing Viking hats and singing the snapsvisa–a Scandinavian song that accompanies drinking schnapps–he does intend for them to build on the design cues former Saab, now Porsche, chief designer Michael Mauer (Cooler & More Futuristic) identified. “Mauer leveraged those cues–the C-pillar, wheel design, clamshell hood and the upright wrap-around windshield–on the 9-x and 93-x concepts. We have to keep developing them while integrating the company’s history as an aircraft maker into the whole.” The latter will be the toughest task, he believes, because “aircraft” to many designers means “fuselage” and results in a clean, extruded, antiseptic shape. Adding “visual entertainment” to the surface has to be done in a way that isn’t superficial or that makes the Nordic/Scandinavian look irrelevant. “This idea of creating an identity that is premium in perception, premium in intent, and looks like it has Scandinavian origins in terms of its cleanliness, sophistication, and graphics takes time to work out,” says Nesbitt. Judging from what he has accomplished so far, it may take less time than many within GM initially expected.