In more than 80 years of GM design history, Ed Welburn is just the sixth chief designer for the Detroit automaker. Welburn, a Philadelphia native, has overseen designs from the Cadillac CTS to the Chevrolet Corvette. GM appointed him chief of GM Design North America in 2003 and head of GM Global Design in 2005 — a new position he filled. Today, the 62-year-old oversees some 2,500 designers and creative associates across 10 global design centers. He oversees design for GM's four U.S. brands — Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC — alongside international ones like Opel and Vauxhall.
Welburn has plenty to celebrate. GM fared well in J.D. Power and Associates' latest Initial Quality Survey, an assessment of things that break — and, critics point out, subjective issues that drivers simply don't like — in the first 90 days of vehicle ownership. On Wednesday, we sat down with him near our Chicago offices. He held forth on a range of topics: GM's recent quality scores, the state of so-called "capacitive" dashboard buttons and the ramp-up to the 2014 Corvette.
New Products, New Concerns
Although GM’s current IQS figures are good, new products often hurt the results. J.D. Power’s influential study, which had more than 83,000 survey respondents this year, placed Cadillac in 14th place among 33 brands — still above average, but below second-place GMC and fifth-place Chevrolet. (Buick ranked 15th.) David Sargent, J.D. Power and Associates' vice president of global automotive, told reporters that Cadillac's two major launches, the ATS and XTS sedans, hurt the brand's scores.
By contrast, GM's outgoing GMT900 trucks — the Chevrolet Silverado, the GMC Sierra and the Chevrolet Avalanche, plus some related SUVs — all won quality awards in J.D. Power's June 19 study. Will their redesigned light-duty successors, the 2014 Silverado and Sierra 1500, match the feat? Welburn thinks so. "The new generation of full-size trucks, everything we learned on the [GMT] 900s are being applied," he said. "The door systems alone are a huge leap."
Cadillac's capacitive Cadillac User Experience system, by contrast, had mixed results. Multimedia systems accounted for 22% of all problems in J.D. Power's survey — "significantly more than any other category," Sargent noted. Ford's MyFord Touch, another capacitive system, has taken a beating in quality surveys from Consumer Reports to J.D. Power. And, like the Ford system, CUE cost Cadillac some IQS points.
Welburn wouldn't share what GM has in store for CUE, but he said the company pays a lot of attention to its execution. "You do have to be very sensitive about [capacitive-touch buttons], and I think different age groups have different opinions," he said. "It's a moving target. It's taken a lot of our resources."
The Trip to the 'Vette
GM's darling, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette, sticks to real buttons and knobs. Welburn is well-versed in the car — he owns a 1995 Corvette convertible as well as a Cadillac CTS-V coupe and a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro — and he plans to buy a new 'Vette.
Redesigning an icon was no small task. After all, Welburn laughed, you didn't want to be known in GM as the guy who screwed up the Corvette. GM told every global designer to submit their own ideas of the next-gen car, a process that flooded the automaker with "hundreds and hundreds" of sketches, Welburn said. But among all of them, cues from one car seemed to permeate: the Corvette Stingray built from 1963 to 1967.
Ultimately, GM winnowed the submissions to a dozen scale models, which became two full-size clay sculptures. The final car brought unexpected consensus — rare for a Corvette redesign, which usually has design and engineering teams yelling. "This is the first Corvette where the chief engineer and the head of design didn't have a big fight," he laughed.
"I think the product won," Welburn said, adding that the new seventh-generation Corvette realizes "the most complete" mix of exterior styling and interior craftsmanship. And that isn't easy, especially on the inside — a frequent weakness in earlier Corvettes.
Designers "understand the budget right up front," he said. Swapping in better cabin materials costs a lot. A padded section of the door or dashboard, for example, costs precious extra dollars versus a cheap, hard sheet of plastic in the same area. "They're significant costs," he added. "We're not just going to dip the whole interior in it. It's not cheap."
Do drivers care? We've said before that automotive journalists are the only ones who inspect dashboards for padding versus hard panels. But Welburn thinks consumers care, too. Shoppers "don't even know what [dashboard padding] is, but it's one of those perceptions," he said. "It just seems like a cheap, tinny interior. They know."