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In the Driver's Seat : Cars: In August, BMW acquired 50% of a Newbury Park design firm. It isn't the first German auto maker to invest in U. S. talent.


Most people think of Munich as the home of BMW, but when it comes to the fine art of discerning American car buyers' tastes, BMW looks to Newbury Park for answers.

That's the home of Designworks/USA, which for seven years has been helping BMW come up with high-tech seat designs, color patterns, new textures and other features that the German auto maker hopes will lure buyers to BMW and away from competitors.

Designworks, which had $3 million in sales last year, also designs things like camera bodies for Vivitar Corp. in Chatsworth and personal computer frames for Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp., plus garden clippers and office chairs.

But car design is Designworks' biggest market. In August, BMW paid $4.5 million in a deal that included a 50% stake in Designworks. The investment, BMW's first hookup with a design studio outside Germany, was meant to shore up the car maker's U. S. market share, which has been eroded by a weak dollar, the recession and the invasion of Japanese luxury models such as Lexus and Infiniti.

"California defines a part of the Zeitgeist ," or spirit of the age, said Uwe Mahla, BMW's spokesman at the company's Munich headquarters. "We felt it was important to keep our finger on the pulse."

Indeed, the BMW-Designworks partnership is the latest move by a foreign car maker to establish a foothold in the U. S. auto-design scene, reflecting the hot competition by foreign car makers for the U. S. market, especially in Southern California. In addition to BMW, Mercedes-Benz last year opened a design center in Irvine and in January, Volkswagen of America and its sister company, Audi, set up a studio in Simi Valley. Volvo, meanwhile, has a studio in Camarillo.

But the Europeans are playing catch-up with the Japanese. Toyota, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Subaru have opened design studios in California recently--most in Orange County. The studios' innovative designs, such as Mazda's Miata sports car, have helped cut into the Europeans' overall U. S. market share, which stands at 4.3%, the lowest in three decades.

Through October, BMW's U. S. sales this year were down 15% to 43,519 cars, spokesman Tom McGurn said. In 1986, BMW's best year in the United States, the company sold 90,000 cars.

Volkswagen, which has been on a long slide in the United States, saw its sales through October fall 28% to 85,370, while Audi's sales plunged 44% to 10,191 cars, the company said.

Volkswagen's Simi Valley studio is geared not just to recapturing the U. S. market but also to preparing to compete against the expected onslaught by the Japanese into the European auto market. (Japanese auto makers have a smaller share of the European market than they do in the United States, but Europe's strict trade barriers are expected to ease in the next few years.)

At the Simi Valley studio--Volkswagen's first outside Germany--21 designers are busy trying to come up with the car of the future. H. Michael Tozer, director of design management at the studio, said Volkswagen wants to learn about Americans' tastes by having its designers live--and drive--in Southern California. Their task is to design new cars that appeal to worldwide tastes but remain distinctly German.

"It's not enough to know if car buyers are young or old," said Verena Kloos, who in March was dispatched from VW's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, to head the Volkswagen design team in Simi Valley. "Today, we need to know a lot more facets . . . and offer more specific design concepts."

Kloos and other VW/Audi officials declined to say exactly what concepts they've been working on in Simi Valley--as with most studios, such matters are a tightly kept secret--but possible projects range from simple things such as door knobs and new interior and exterior colors to designing an entire car model that might be introduced worldwide in three to four years.

"This is a very secret place," Tozer said. "Not even many people in the corporation are allowed in here." The company chose Simi Valley for its studio in part because it's only a 20-minute drive from VW/Audi's Western regional headquarters in Westlake Village.

J. C. Mays, Kloos' counterpart on the Audi side of the studio, is an Oklahoma native who spent 10 years with Audi in Germany before coming to Simi Valley earlier this year. Mays said Americans and Germans have widely different views of cars and driving. Germany's famed autobahns, where drivers routinely hit speeds above 100 m.p.h., require snug-fitting seats more suited to a racetrack, for example. But the same seats can be a pain for commuters inching along in Los Angeles freeway traffic, so Audi is looking into more comfortable designs, according to Mays.

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