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For Dealerships, It's a Matter of Show Business

Auto makers find that showrooms with just the right ambience can be as important to customers as appealing vehicles.

April 24, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vehicles aren't the only things that must look appealing to entice car buyers. Auto makers and dealers spend millions trying to get just the right ambience in their showrooms too.

Typically, dealerships strive for a look that reflects the cars and trucks they sell. Mitsubishi, for example, has developed a set of interior and exterior design elements that it is asking dealers to incorporate in their showrooms.

The company has one of the youngest buyer profiles in the business and wants its dealerships to reflect that.

"Our showrooms are critical to our brand image," says Pierre Gagnon, president of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.

The Mitsubishi look, says company spokeswoman Janice Little, "is young, sophisticated, fresh." The showroom designs call for extensive use of light birch furnishings and paneling, big glass exterior walls and interactive video kiosks that computer-savvy customers can use to design their cars from available options and accessories.

"Light spikes" 25 feet high illuminate the buildings and outdoor parking areas, and each redesigned or new dealership will have a three-dimensional, 6-foot-high Mitsubishi "triple-diamond" emblem in bright red positioned near the entrance to make sure customers know where they are.

At Land Rover, new dealerships reflect an outdoor theme, with rugged landscaping and lots of stone and wood. Several have test tracks.

New Saab dealerships are done in Swedish modern, with lots of teak, to reflect the General Motors-owned brand's Scandinavian heritage.

The latest look from GM's Hummer unit is Army chic--in honor of the Hummer's military roots.

Although the first Hummer showrooms are being allowed to open in shared quarters with the dealers' existing GM brands, the auto maker is requiring Hummer dealers to build dedicated showrooms during the next few years.

The design, a curving metal roof arching over a two-story glass entry framed by a giant "H" made of steel girders, was inspired by the corrugated tin Quonset huts that populate military bases, says Michael DiGiovanni, Hummer division general manager. In addition to lighted signage, the brand name "Hummer" is stenciled on each roof in giant capital letters.

But the military look is softened with soaring glass walls and a contemporary, open interior laid out so customers can walk around, and under, the various vehicles.

The new Hummer facilities will put all the service, vehicle preparation and delivery areas under one roof, leaving the building's exterior for customer parking and a little something extra for those who don't intend to limit their Hummer driving to the highways.

John Bergstrom, owner of Bergstrom Hummer in a Milwaukee suburb, describes the store he is building as "an adult amusement park" and notes that "it sits on a full 5 acres and has a test track around the perimeter."

Such test tracks, which will include water courses, fallen logs, rocky inclines and deeply potholed mock riverbeds for prospective Hummer buyers to ford in the vehicles, will be a feature of each of the new dealerships, DiGiovanni says.

Bergstrom's will be the first to open, an event scheduled for July 10.

Southern Californians will get to try the Hummer experience--and eyeball the Hummer look--late this year or early next with the opening of the next two showrooms: Hummer of Valencia and Mark Christopher Hummer in Ontario.

Whatever you think of Army chic, we'll wager there won't be a Hummer of Beverly Hills any time soon.

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John O'Dell covers autos and the auto industry for Highway 1 and the Business section. He can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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