Design May 2002

Spring Cars

As the weather grows more seductive, so do the new-model automobiles

The purpose of the annual model change was not so much to get people excited about the new cars as to make them feel that their current cars looked old. It also accelerated the price depreciation of existing cars, which, curiously, helped to establish nearly universal car use, even among those with low incomes, by generating a supply of inexpensive used vehicles. Sloan was a genius at creating systems. Lee Iacocca, who was the Ford executive responsible for making the Mustang happen, bucked the system by focusing attention on a specific car—one that almost 420,000 customers wanted to buy in the first year.

Remnants of the annual model change persist, but nobody tries nowadays to keep new cars a secret. Prototypes are previewed in magazines and displayed at automobile shows. "Our buyers have known about this car for years," says Doug Worrell, the Mercedes manager who is overseeing the launch of the SL500. Mercedes's last substantial redesign of the SL series was introduced more than a decade ago, Worrell told me recently, and some people have bought essentially the same car twice. Mercedes dealers already have deposits for nearly all the 10,000 cars they expect to ship to the United States this year. But Worrell added quickly that prospective buyers shouldn't be discouraged from looking, because some of the people who put down deposits might not have quite as much money as they once thought they would.

The major automobile shows—in Los Angeles and Detroit in January and in New York in March or April—have become crucial not merely for marketing new cars but also for testing ideas and gathering reactions from car enthusiasts and the press about which concepts should be pursued and how they should be refined for production. The PT Cruiser, for example, was exhibited first as part of a group of fantastic possibilities, then as a prototype, and finally as a production model.

The Nissan 350Z, one of this year's most anticipated cars, has also undergone a well-publicized evolution. It began almost as a guerrilla effort within the Japanese firm's California design offices. People there who believed that the company needed to resurrect the Z car—which in the early 1970s was the first Japanese car to capture American enthusiasm—took it upon themselves to create a concept car. It won enough support within the company to be exhibited at auto shows in 1999. Later the car was deemed stylistically too backward-looking, and last year a completely different design—whose sculpted body seems to flow like molten metal over big wheels—was shown. The production car, very similar to last year's prototype, has been displayed at this year's shows and will be at dealerships this summer, selling for about $26,000.

"The marketing concept of the Z is lust—then love," Fred Suckow says of the long public introduction process. "We want to give people a chance to say 'I want that.'"

This spring's small crop of cars going from the auto shows to the showrooms has nothing that seeks to make the impact of the Mustang, or even of the PT Cruiser. All the models appeal to market niches—or, in the case of the Mercedes, slivers.

One, the new Honda Civic Hybrid sedan, which arrived in showrooms last month, follows the tradition of the Ford V-8 by putting an advanced engine in a mainstream car. Unlike Honda's earlier hybrid gasoline-electric model, the Insight, in which shielded rear wheels and obvious streamlining dramatized an experimental nature, the Civic Hybrid is virtually indistinguishable in design from other cars of its size. Its styling signals that 50-mpg cars may be on their way to being commonplace. The Hybrid will cost about $20,000, and the company expects to sell 2,000 of them a month.

The new Mini Cooper, introduced in America in March, is, like the new Beetle before it, an upscale update of a beloved, affordable car. The original Mini, introduced in Britain in 1959, was the first mass-marketed front-wheel-drive car. It was shockingly small but lithe and lively, an icon of England in the swinging-London era (Paul McCartney had one). It was sold in very small quantities in the United States, during the 1960s, so its retro look conjures up memories in few Americans. The new Mini is manufactured in England by BMW Group, which expects to sell only about 20,000 of the cars in the United States, starting at about $17,000 apiece.

The new Mini is almost two feet longer than the old, and with its leather seats, standard air-conditioning, and six airbags, it is a far cry from its minimalist predecessor. The car is so cute that it's almost smug. With a black or white top that seems to float above the window glass, it looks both novel and jaunty. And though some find the interior fussy in its detailing, the inside of the car's door and other features have a powerful, distinctive engineered look.

Then, this summer, comes that graceful, geometrically pure, up-to-date but perhaps timeless Nissan 350Z.

The weather's getting warmer. Life is short. I want that.

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