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Ford, Subaru Recognize Beauty Really Is Only Skin Deep

The longer I'm around the auto industry the more I realize the paramount importance of exterior styling.

Improved exterior styling is the best reason I can think of to account for the fact that Subaru just finished a record sales year in the United States, while nearly every other brand struggled.

It also occurs to me that media coverage is largely neglecting striking changes in exterior styling at Ford. That's partly Ford's own fault, because it has been so aggressive in promoting its interior features, like a new generation of Ford Sync and the new MyFord Touch control system.

But exterior styling is the first thing a shopper sees. If a car fails that first test, it's unlikely the customer will ever try out the interior, no matter how nice it is.

The effect reminds me of the Malcom Gladwell book Blink, where people make snap judgments based on the first two seconds of an encounter. Before Gladwell came along with the term "lizard brains," our mothers used to say, "You only get one chance to make a first impression."

After years of styling that was either too bland or too quirky, Subaru (FUJHY.PK) styling is much improved. The newest Subaru Impreza, for instance, looks sporty instead of frankly odd. The new Legacy-based Outback has finally shed almost all of its 1980s-style plastic body cladding, and it looks bigger, taller, more rugged, and more imposing than the car it replaces.

True, other factors have changed. Subaru is spending more on advertising to raise awareness. But that wouldn't help if shoppers didn't come in, and if Subaru dealers couldn't close the deal. Subaru is also pitching "Love" in its ads. That's relatively new, too, but at least part of the appeal is aimed at existing owners, not new shoppers.

Meanwhile, the Subaru brand image and its core product attribute, all-wheel drive, haven't fundamentally changed. The new Subarus aren't any cheaper. In fact depending on the model they are at least a couple of thousand dollars more expensive than the models they replaced. Sure, interiors have changed, too, but what's really changed to the naked eye is the styling.

Ford (F) calls its new look "kinetic design." In a nutshell, that means cars are designed to look as if they're moving, even when they're standing still.

That's a design cliché, but the look is achieved through a combination of styling cues including stance, lines and creases that mimic air passing over the surfaces. A plainer way to put it is that smaller cars don't have to look strictly utilitarian. Ford doesn't have a monopoly on this reasoning. The latest generation of small cars from General Motors and Chrysler big brother Fiat (FIATY.PK) is also distinctively styled.

Bear in mind that a big part of the small-car strategy for Ford and its competitors is to persuade buyers to pay relatively premium prices for small cars. That's especially tough for American customers, who associate "small" with "inexpensive." Stripping away the design catchphrases, Ford is saying in part that the cars have to look as if they're worth the money.

Photo: Subaru