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2001: A Showroom Odyssey

The message from auto makers is clear: More is better. They're coming to the table with more safety features, more technology and an expanded lineup of models. And, in more good news for consumers, the industry is generally keeping a lid on prices.

November 08, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 2001 model year is upon us and, after a blockbuster of a millennial year for cars and trucks in 2000, it might seem at first glance that the auto industry is taking a breather.

Auto makers, after all, already have discovered the youth market, the pent-up demand by aging baby boomers for larger and more luxurious vehicles, the growing interest in safer and environmentally sane cars and trucks, and the wired generation's need for connectivity.

They have learned the lesson of the 1970s and '80s and, with rare exception, no longer are ignoring the buyer's need for style and statement: Design is integral to most new-vehicle development these days, not an afterthought.

As the model year turned from '99 to '00, the news was in technology, sportiness, niche marketing and the shift in the growing truck segment toward car-based crossovers that sacrifice a bit of utility and off-road ability for smoother ride and improved handling.

So what's new?

This year--with more than half the new models already introduced--the message, clearly, is that more is better.

On the whole, the industry comes to the table in the 2001 model year with more technology, more safety features, more crossover trucks, more sport-utility vehicles with third-row seating, more sporty and performance models, and more efforts to launch vehicles that appeal not to the masses but to relatively small groups of special-interest buyers: so-called outdoor actives; harried commuters; luxury lovers; speed demons; wired information junkies; and the environmentally conscious.

As Ronald L. Zarrella, North American president for General Motors Corp., puts it, auto makers are in competition "for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of an increasingly fragmented set of customers."

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The good news for consumers is that the industry, though riding high in a year that probably will see an all-time sales record of close to 18 million new passenger cars and light trucks, is girding for an economic slowdown. That means that product planners, even though under pressure to come up with new and better vehicles, have to do so while keeping a lid on prices.

"The industry really is very volatile now," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

"Sales are high, but margins are very low," he said. "And the real price of a vehicle keeps falling in relation to the content that the auto makers are providing for competitive reasons. . . . So customers are getting more for their money."

On the safety front, 2001 brings more models with multiple air bags. Among these are standard systems from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and other luxury makers that provide side air bags for both front and rear passengers that protect them from head and torso injuries. Audi is the latest to add a ceiling-mounted air-bag curtain that provides a barrier between occupants' heads and the upper sides of the vehicle's cabin.

In addition, anti-skid or vehicle-stabilization systems are trickling down into the mid-price ranges from the luxury segment. These systems use complex sensors to determine when a car is about to skid and send that information to a central computer. The computer, in turn, automatically applies brake and engine controls to help keep the vehicle from spinning out of control, whether on loose or slippery surfaces or when pushed too hard into a corner by an overzealous driver.

At least two models--the Chevrolet Corvette and the Plymouth Prowler--now come with run-flat tires as standard equipment. Others offer run-flats as options.

Improved versions of these stiff-sidewall tires, which can go 50 to 75 miles without air, provide a more comfortable ride and are thus more likely to appear in less sporty models in the future. French tire maker Michelin, in fact, has developed a system it calls PAX that uses a specially designed tire-and-wheel combination to provide run-flats with the ride characteristics of standard radial tires. Cadillac's 2003 Evoq luxury roadster will use the PAX system as its standard tire-wheel offering.

More and more auto makers are adding consumer electronics--from flip-down video entertainment systems in minivans and sport-utility vehicles to in-dash navigation systems, voice-activated cell phones and powerful audio systems with multi-disc CD changers and sound quality that equals or betters that of expensive home systems. Another technology advance just around the corner: two-way in-car e-mail.

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One way the industry is managing the seemingly impossible--providing more for less--is through advances in automotive engineering and manufacturing processes that have made it possible to develop several models from a single platform. That's the industry term for the design and basic components of the underpinnings of a vehicle.

Platform sharing results in huge development and production savings.

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