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How redesigns and improvements keep car designs fresh

It takes a great deal of time, work, and money to redesign a car, but even as a new model comes to market, auto companies are busy updating it.

“The competition is fierce,” says Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research, Toyota’s design studio in California. “But we always have to consider the customer when we ‘move the needle.’”

Generally, brand-new models are introduced, “refreshed” about halfway through their life cycle, and then completely redesigned again as all-new.

In the past, the refresh would usually be minor and take a few years, but many automakers are now updating their models sooner, and more extensively, to stay competitive. Hunter’s team has sent out a Toyota Camry for 2015 that uses the 2014 model’s platform and engine, but with radically updated interior and exterior styling.

Refreshed styling is actually far more difficult than creating a car from scratch,

Hunter says, because designers have to work within the constraints of the current car, including its overall size, shape, and interior configuration.

At the same time, the redesign has to be extensive enough that buyers can tell at a glance that the vehicle’s been changed.

Even as they alter the car’s appearance, designers have to maintain the integrity of the original engineering.

Altering the vehicle’s aerodynamics can negatively affect its fuel economy, while new curves or shapes have to meet the realities of mass production, and any changes to the steering or suspension must be extensively tested.

Automakers don’t take redesigns lightly, as they’re very expensive.

In addition to the costs of design and engineering, production facilities have to be retooled to make the new parts, and suppliers have to accommodate the updated designs.

A redesigned model also goes through the same launch process as an all-new model.

The company has to produce new advertising and commercials, print new brochures and sales material for its dealers, update its website, and present the car to the media.

Toyota says that most mainstream-model customers only spend about 30 days deciding which car to buy, and the company has to focus on advertising until there are enough of the new models on the road that these customers realize the car they knew before has been changed.

“We start on the next one as soon as (the current one) hits the showrooms,” Hunter says. “We always try to go as far as we can, without getting so radical that the customer may not appreciate it.”

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