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Driven by Science

Car Buyers Under Spell of Latest Advancements


When Barry Lavette bought a new car a few months ago, he was looking for only one thing: room for his surfboards.

He bought a station wagon, albeit a sporty one. A 1999 Subaru Legacy.

Lavette, a 42-year-old medical technician from West Los Angeles, isn't a big TV watcher. So he hadn't seen Australian actor Paul Hogan's commercials for the Subaru's all-wheel-drive alternatives to the lumbering sport-utility vehicles and four-wheel-drive trucks that have captured the hearts and minds of so many car buyers in America.

And he didn't pay much attention when sales manager Debbie Willis at Corona Motors talked about the technologies--such as full-time all-wheel drive and four-channel ABS, or anti-lock braking system--that came standard with the $22,000 Legacy. He was busy measuring the space behind the front seats.

"It [technology] just wasn't important to me," Lavette says.

And then he started driving his new wagon.

"I go all over the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga and Malibu, and the difference was just amazing," he says. "I didn't care about it when I was buying, but now I'll never buy another car without all-wheel drive and ABS. It goes through those twisting roads like it was on rails."

Lavette, like tens of thousands of other new-car buyers these days, has become a victim of technology, spoiled by the tremendous changes that have been altering the automobile almost as rapidly as advances in silicon chip design continue to improve the personal computer.

Cars and trucks don't exist in the buy-it-today, see-it-become-obsolete-tomorrow time frame of the PC, but they're getting there, industry insiders say.

And for much the same reason: electronics technology.

"It is almost scary how far and fast it has all come," says Dean Benjamin, whose Manhattan Beach-based AutoSource Inc. keeps track of technological developments and their automotive applications.

"It used to take four or five years for a car maker to design a new model or major new feature and bring it to production. Now most are saying they can do it in two years."

Honda, for example, introduced variable-valve timing in its expensive NSX sports car in 1991. The following year, this race-bred technology was available in the company's mainstream Civic and Accord. Last year, Toyota installed this fuel-efficient system for continually adjusting the engine's intake and exhaust valves for optimum performance, in its luxury division's flagship, the Lexus LS400 sedan. Next year, it will be available on a number of less expensive Toyotas, including the company's new Echo--a sub-$10,000 compact aimed at first time buyers.

"That's just two years from luxury to mainstream," Benjamin says.

That kind of speed is necessary because today's consumer is no longer willing to wait half a decade or more to see a neat new technology wend its way down the chain from expensive option on a luxury car to standard equipment on mainstream vehicles.

"Car companies are operating in a heinous competitive environment," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "Consumers are demanding more, and manufacturers have to deliver to keep a competitive advantage."

They can deliver because of computers and the miniaturization of electronic equipment so that it fits in the tight spaces available on cars and trucks--and because the industry has finally learned to use the new technologies.

"Car makers were staffed with mechanical engineers who didn't know how to use electronic technology, but now new people, with the right skills, have come in. The skill levels are much higher," Cole says.

In fact, while consumers are seeing a staggering amount of new technologies in their vehicles, what they don't see is even greater.

"There are unbelievable things going on in the auto industry in the area of computer modeling," Cole says. "They can design test, build and drive a new car in the computer before they ever do it in real life."

This reduces the costs of developing a new vehicle because all the trial and error is done by computer, with no wasted material and manufacturing costs to write off while trying to get it right.

Computers also control the robotic machines that increasingly are used in auto production and are helping engineers develop better ways to bend metal and incorporate exotic materials--plastics, carbon fiber and Kevlar, tough aluminum alloys--into chassis that are stronger and more rattle- and squeak-free than ever before.

"Consumers don't see all this, but it all benefits the consumer by enabling car companies to customize their products with very short lead times and at much lower costs than in the past," says Dave Nathanson, head of the automotive consulting practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Detroit.

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