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Cars as Marketing Tools: What a Concept!

Design* Manufacturers with an eye on the bottom line now want a little pragmatism built into their dream cars.

January 16, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concept cars, once little more than physical manifestations of designers' wildest fantasies, have taken on considerably more significance in recent years.

They continue to be explorations of shape and style, technology and function. But as the auto industry grows ever more competitive and profit margins get thinner and thinner, designers are being told to aim for reality.

So concepts now double as marketing tools, and although what you see on display at an auto show isn't exactly what makes it into production, they often provide clues about what car makers plan for future production.

The Chrysler Crossfire roadster unveiled as a 2004 production model at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show this year, for instance, was a concept at the Detroit show last year.

"The idea of concepts has changed since the '80s," said San Diego-based auto industry consultant Gordon Wangers. "The idea now is that they don't build them unless they have a pretty good chance of making the starting team."

And, of course, concepts are used to generate publicity. Within months of introducing a concept of an updated version of Britain's iconic Mini Cooper in 1999, BMW--which acquired the brand with its 1994 purchase of Rover Group--had visitors lining up to gawk at car shows and car magazines screaming for it to be built.

The new Mini hits showrooms this spring.

Another version of that story could be building after the introduction of the Lincoln Continental Concept earlier this month at the Los Angeles show.

Ford Motor Co. last week announced that as part of its financial turnaround plan it will end production of the current Continental, which has sold poorly.

Two years ago, Ford, realizing that the average Lincoln customer was more than 60 years old, cut the brand loose, moved its headquarters to Southern California and told top managers to soak up some Southland attitude.

Lincoln got a new design team and a new charter: As the only American brand in Ford's Premier Automotive Group, Lincoln must become the symbol of American luxury.

Lincoln design chief Gerry McGovern said the Continental Concept is a study in thematic elements that probably will wind up in a new Lincoln flagship in the not-too-distant future.

Whether that flagship will resurrect the venerable Continental name is unclear. But it certainly will resurrect some classic Continental themes. The concept drips with them, including the slab sides and center opening that graced the Lincolns of the 1960s era.

Concepts also provide strong clues about where the industry is headed in terms of new types of vehicles, said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. consultants in Tustin.

For most of the late 1980s and '90s, concept versions of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles abounded--and trucks have been the growth engine of the U.S. market for the last decade.

Tastes now are changing, and although sleek sports cars and coupes still capture attention, the most commonly seen concepts examine ways to combine car-quality ride and handling with the storage capacity, commanding road view and all-weather capabilities of a pickup or SUV.

In the accompanying photos, Highway 1 takes a peek at key concepts unveiled at the Detroit and Los Angeles shows.

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