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plan-it-yourself cars and other predictions


January 1, 1999



PASADENA, Calif.-- "These days, almost every car is safe, reliable and performs well," Gregory Brew said. "Now, the trick is to provide that extra little something that creates attachment to an inanimate object."

 When Mr. Brew speaks, Detroit -- and Stuttgart and Tokyo -- listen. As the assistant chairman of the transportation design department at the elite Art Center College of Design here, he is training the 20-something students who are expected to come up with the next big things in cars -- the future equivalents of the Chrysler minivan, the Mazda Miata and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, vehicles that captured the hearts and wallets of a generation.

 The talent, empowered by computer-aided design and emboldened by the anything-goes spirit of pop culture, is certainly out there. There is only one catch, Mr. Brew suggested: With basic transportation needs largely sated and manufacturing technology giving auto makers the flexibility of short-order cooks, car design is entering an era of "creative anarchy" in which individual customers have as much say about what their vehicles look like as the designers.

 Back up a minute. By most measures this is a golden age for car design. Prodded by global competition, the garish, unreliable land yachts of the 1970's have morphed into the durable, luxurious people movers of the 1990's, whose significant shortcoming is their bland sheet metal. Family sedans tend to look like Toyota Camrys and compacts look like Honda Civics and sport utilities aspire to be Ford Explorers. 990101cars_1

 Even this tendency to conformity seems to be self-correcting, though, as European auto makers, hard-pressed to compete on cost, are distinguishing their products with provocative designs. Enter the New Beetle, the Mercedes M-Class sport utility, the Audi TT coupe, the BMW M Coupe. Equally impressive, but not seen on this side of the Atlantic, are the elegant Alfa Romeo 156 sport sedan, the high-tech Mercedes-Benz A-Class micro-van, the playful Renault Twingo subcompact, the buglike Fiat Multiplia.

 This enthusiasm for arresting design has hardly been spent. Soon to make a splash are two products from Mercedes-Benz: the superluxurious Maybach and, on European roads, the eight-foot-long Smart city car. Meanwhile, radical chic is trickling down to budget-priced cars as Ford keeps pressing out its sharply creased New Edge look and Volkswagen completes its curvaceous lineup with a new Jetta.

 What comes next? One safe prediction is that eye-catching colors and unusual materials will proliferate. The New Beetle's imaginative use of textured plastic and tropical dashboard lighting, Audi's use of brushed aluminum interior fittings (which accent the all-aluminum body of the Audi A8) and the Mercedes SLK230's electric-orange leather interior represent the wave of the near future. With auto makers depending ever more on distinctive design to defend high-margin niche markets, parts suppliers must bend to the demand for variety. "If we ask for headlights that are two feet wide and two inches high, we'll get them," said Mr. Brew, who moonlights as a senior designer for BMW.

 Another good bet is greater attention to the needs and wishes of women, who are making ever more purchasing decisions even while they are breaking into the male ranks of car designers. While there is little evidence that women prefer their cars warm and fuzzy -- the very macho BMW Z3 roadster has been a hit with female buyers -- they do seem more concerned with the practical. And auto makers are responding with extra doors on pickup trucks, high-intensity headlights for middle-age eyes, extra 12-volt outlets for electronic gadgets, side-impact and head-protection air bags and, of course, cup holders in every cranny.

 Tisha Johnson, 28, who is finishing her degree at Art Center College, thinks this trend is in its infancy. With the help of dirt-cheap microprocessors and electronic sensors, she notes, there are no barriers to producing "intelligent interiors" that adjust music and lighting to the driver's mood, or that select video programming to educate the restless six-year-old in the back. "Cars should adjust to the needs of their passengers," she said, "not the other way around."

 Mr. Brew envisions a rapid proliferation of models, in large part because customization is now possible. Computers have sharply shortened the cycle from sketch to working model, and a host of changes in process engineering have slashed the cost of producing a run of just a few hundred or a few thousand vehicles. The next big step, he suggested, is custom manufacturing in which a car is tailored to its buyer like a Savile Row suit.

 That will generate some very tangible benefits for drivers who do not fit the common-denominator specs. "There are millions of women under 5-foot-2 who can never be comfortable in a mass-produced car," Mr. Brew said, and a lot of them, he guessed, would gladly pony up a few thousand dollars more for seats, steering columns and controls that are made to measure.

 It could also mean endless variety in what cars look like. Indeed, Mr. Brew speculates that the trend will lead to entirely new ways to market personal transportation -- one built around the increased durability of key parts and the falling cost of making vehicles different.

 A car tailored to individual body shapes and tastes, he notes, will not have much value to a second owner. By the same token, there won't be much need to scrap cars built with corrosion-resistant materials and engines that go 100,000 miles between tuneups. Hence, he envisions a future in which individuals keep cars much longer, but pay for frequent facelifts and add-on frills.

 That is an enticing vision for consumers, one analogous to the breakdown of rules in the fashion industry and the rise of clothing that felt as good as it looked. But it could prove hard on auto makers, who will be caught between the demands of the marketplace and the wish to preserve brand identities. And it could prove even harder on the next generation of designers, who may never realize the dream of producing the distinctive vehicles -- the jelly-bean Taurus, the E-Type Jaguar -- that became as familiar as the faces of movie stars.


 Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


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