Deep Orange, a concept vehicle developed by graduate students at Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research with backing from Mazda, offers a glimpse at what the Millennial Generation seeks in a vehicle.
Millennials, those between ages 18 and 33, comprise a group highly coveted for their sheer numbers and expected buying power. Determining what type of vehicle appeals to them has been the ongoing mission of most auto makers, though many so far have failed to develop a car that is a hit with younger buyers.
Deep Orange, designed, developed and produced by Millennials, is unlike most of the small, sporty vehicles auto makers now aim at younger buyers. While not a large vehicle – it’s roughly the size of the C-segment Mazda3, it seats six people.
Paul J. Venhovens, who holds the BMW-endowed chair in systems integration at CU-ICAR and headed up the vehicle program, says research by the Deep Orange team determined Millennials desire a car with room for at least five people, because they like to travel with their friends.
“They don’t want compact cars, they want something more mature,” Venhovens tells WardsAuto. “Eighty percent of the vehicles purchased by this generation are used, but when they buy new they want a fairly traditional sedan with lots of space.”
The project was targeted around the Mazda brand and a $25,000-$30,000 base price. The auto maker provided 70,000 customer surveys to give the CU-ICAR team a better understanding of its owner base, and the development team was divided into smaller groups focused on powertrain, body-in-white, electronics and chassis.
Students had to apply to join specific teams, Venhovens says. “It’s a great motivator to work hard.”
The next step involved building the vehicle itself. In September 2011, 28 automotive engineering students started with virtual product development, while 15 transportation design students began work on the car’s exterior.
Mazda lent expertise, with design director Derek Jenkins and Robert Davis, senior vice president-U.S. operations, providing input and direction.
“It was like the (real) automotive industry, where you have reviews from management,” Venhovens says.
An exterior design was chosen from a number of entries, with the team deciding on a rendering inked by student Fred Naaman.
The next step was developing a body-in-white, perhaps the most challenging and unique part of the project. The objective was to craft a BIW using an innovative metal-bending technology patented by Ohio-based Industrial Origami, rather than traditional stampings.
The students engineered the load-bearing BIW using aluminum sheet, which is folded into parts that subsequently are joined using adhesive or rivets. The goal was to have as few parts as possible.
“If we could have folded it from one piece it would have been great, but we couldn’t find a piece big enough,” he says.
“We (employed the origami process) because we didn’t want to invest in dies and stamping, which cost millions of dollars,” Venhovens adds. “With this vehicle we wanted to show you can do it differently, and we’re hoping someone will pick this up and implement it.”
Subsequent chassis and powertrain integration development was completed in October 2012. The Deep Orange concept features a parallel-hybrid powertrain that combines a Mazda 1.5L 4-cyl. gasoline engine with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery that drives the rear wheels.
The all-wheel-drive concept can operate in either full-electric or gasoline modes or with the two power sources working in conjunction.
The last step of the project was to add the body panels that give the vehicle its Mazda DNA. Venhovens says the exterior design is meant to convey speed and tension. Use of fiberglass for the exterior panels kept cost to a minimum, he says.
The Deep Orange concept has a bare-bones interior, with seats, an infotainment system, speedometer and a gear selector, but the car is functional and has been test-driven.
Venhovens says the completed project is slated to go on a tour of auto shows, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, where it will be displayed at the Mazda stand.