Car Designers Go off the Beaten Path With New Stylish Models

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of force-feeding consumers a stream of look-alike cars, auto makers have started listening to the market again--and the result is a revolution in the making.

From Ford Motor Co.'s redesigned Thunderbird to Mercedes-Benz's futuristic Maybach show car, the industry is about to launch a new fleet of posh luxury cars, sporty roadsters and classy coupes that will reintroduce the concept of style to the market.

It is a shift that analysts say is driven by consumers, who have been abandoning the car in droves and making once-mundane pickup trucks and utility vehicles their wheels of choice. In the United States, light trucks today account for one-third of all vehicles on the road and nearly half of all new-vehicle sales, and analysts expect sales to top 50% within two years.

"Planners and designers have had their heads together for quite a while redefining the car," said Jerry Hirschberg, director of Nissan's Design International studio in La Jolla. "It's high time we took a good, fresh, creative look at that segment of the market."

Hirschberg believes that people want cars to start sharing some of the attributes--including room, solidity and individuality--that have made sport-utility vehicles so popular.

"There is urgency and opportunity to this," he said.

Critics, though, say the industry didn't leap willingly into a wholesale rethinking of car design.

"They are being forced to do it," said industry consultant George Peterson of AutoPacific Inc. in Santa Ana. "People are demanding products with an identity. They want cars they can tell the make of, instead of being saddled with more look-alikes."

And now there's enough out there--and in the pipeline--to jump-start all those consumers who entered deep catatonic states about the time the 103rd jellybean-shaped sedan made its debut.

Henry Ford wrote the book on letting industry dictate to consumers with his plan to give Americans any car they wanted--as long as it was a black Model T.

Now former Ford executive Richard Beattie, president of Mazda North American Operations in Irvine, is sounding the trumpet for what he calls "cars with character."

In a recent speech to executives of import-car companies, Beattie called for more cars like the Plymouth Prowler, the Dodge Viper and Mazda's own Miata, all of which have helped re-energize the U.S. car market. Although all are sold in relatively small numbers, they and their kin, he said, will provide the spark that keeps people interested and pulls them in to dealers' showrooms.

Just this week, J.D. Power & Associates issued a study that found that car makers are perceiving growing consumer demand for assertive styling, improved handling and more luxury in the same package and are racing to build new roadsters and convertibles in response.

"They're really trying hard to specialize each vehicle because consumer tastes are becoming more specialized and demanding," Power analyst Lisa Plosky said.

Nissan, which canceled production of its Z-Series sports car in 1996 because of slow U.S. sales, reportedly is preparing to introduce a new roadster, for instance, while Honda is readying its first convertible for the U.S. market.

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The change in attitude hasn't been smooth and easy. Car makers thrive on mass production and for years balked at the costs of introducing specialized niche models.

But advances in technology have brought computer-aided design and computer-controlled manufacturing to the auto industry. Those technologies have enabled car makers to slash development and production costs and to design models that look different on the outside but still achieve economies of scale by sharing hundreds of key components under their skins, says George Magliano, director of auto industry consulting at WEFA Group in New York.

Cars designed to serve a special niche in the market are "the spice and seasoning" needed to make the whole dish memorable, said Neil Walling, director of Chrysler Corp.'s International Advanced and Exterior Design unit in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Chrysler, to be acquired by Germany's Daimler-Benz in a proposed $40-billion deal that is rocking the car industry to its foundations, knows well the need to make memorable cars.

The company was almost insolvent in the late '70s, a purveyor of boxy, unimaginative vehicles that drove bored car shoppers into the arms of the competition. Nowadays, Chrysler is known as one of the most style-driven car makers in the industry, thanks to its aggressive campaign to develop niche vehicles like the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler.

They are the seasoning, to use Walling's term, that keeps the Chrysler brands on consumers' minds when they start thinking about shopping for a new vehicle.

That's why Ford has announced that it is reintroducing the recently canceled Thunderbird as a reinterpretation of the classic versions of the mid-1950s. Ford officials won't provide details, but insiders say the car will be a convertible with a removable hardtop (complete with porthole), a la the '57 T-Bird.

Ford might not sell millions of the new Thunderbirds, analysts say, but the cars and the attention they will focus on the company will help it sell Contours and Tauruses and Escorts.

Spice is why General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division is about to unveil a show car--a roadster built on the Corvette chassis--that most insiders believe will quickly become a production model. Cadillac is trying to reverse the aging of its basic clientele.

It was the Mazda Miata roadster that opened the floodgates. Since introducing it in 1989, Mazda has sold almost 500,000 of the open two-seaters, half in the U.S. It's a success story that has made manufacturers sit up and take notice--one that is directly responsible for cars like the BMW Z-3 roadsters and the Mercedes-Benz SLK.

Volkswagen, in turn, lighted a fire this year with its New Beetle, a new-century interpretation of the old VW Bug. Although the company won't comment, the smart money has a New Beetle cabriolet hitting the streets about 2001--just in time to rekindle the flame and get customers standing in line again as demand for the coupe settles down.

"They've got to have something for all the blonds at the beach to drive," analyst Peterson quipped.

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The reintroduction of style is not limited to small cars:

* Ford's Mercury division is selling a new Cougar coupe these days that brings back some of the pizazz the marque had in the early '70s when it was an upscale version of the Mustang. The Cougar is Mercury's first application of Ford's so-called new-edge styling--an effort to add planes and creases to the jellybean. Insiders say the new-generation Mustang could follow suit.

* Volvo put curves back on its cars this year with the C-Series coupe and convertible.

* Mercedes-Benz reportedly is close to a decision on whether to turn its monster luxury Maybach show car into a production vehicle.

At 22 inches longer and nearly 3 inches wider than the biggest Benz now on the road, the Maybach would be a standout even without its two-tone paint scheme, glass roof, lounge-chair seating or luminescent side molding that can be dimmed or brightened at the driver's whim.

* And Audi is about to roll out the TT coupe and convertible--futuristic cars that don't copy anything on the road today. The TT was designed at VW's North America studio in Simi Valley--where the New Beetle got its start as well--and is all circles and curves.

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, applauds the changes. He fears that years of sameness have trained consumers to think of their vehicles as just another appliance.

"To get them to think differently about the car," he said, manufacturers "need to build excitement."

Times staff writer John O'Dell can be reached via e-mail at john.odell@latimes.com.

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