- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2001

Credit the PT Cruiser for sparking what could turn out to be an automotive design renaissance in the United States.

With the PT, DaimlerChrysler demonstrated that a little styling panache can be highly profitable and now the rest of the auto industry wants in on the action.

During the ultraconservative 1990s, car and truck stylists turned out a spate of middle-of-the-road vehicles that neither offended nor aroused passions. The result? Everybody seemed to be chasing the same customer who simply opted for the best deal.

But industry strategy has shifted. And if the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit is any indication, the first decade of the new millennium may end up rivaling the golden era of the 1950s, when styling was king and tailfins ruled the roads.

The recent Detroit show saw automakers roll out a bevy of concept and production cars and trucks meant to spark emotions. Among them was the Nissan Z-car, inspired by the original 240Z that defined Nissan way back when its name was Datsun. Also on hand was the retro-looking Ford Forty-Nine coupe, BMW's revival of the British Mini, Volkswagen's New Beetle-like update of its 1960s hippie bus and Honda's quirky Model X sport utility vehicle. GM drew raves for its sleek Buick Bengal convertible, exhibited alongside a rugged GMC Terradyne SUV and aggressive Cadillac Vizon crossover all aggressively styled concepts that have serious shots at production.

And for once carmakers aren't just talking the talk at auto shows they now firmly believe there's a compelling business case for putting some pizzazz back into dealer showrooms. Simply put, what's inspiring the new design shift isn't a quest for art, but profits.

"Product is the key," said Nissan President Carlos Ghosn. "Bold and passionate styling is important. We want our cars to be daring, memorable." Like others, Mr. Ghosn said his company is looking to lessen its reliance on rebates and other costly, cut-rate sales tactics by designing more must-have vehicles. Last year proved there's more to making profits than selling in volume. Although 2000 saw record sales, Big Three fourth-quarter earnings suffered double-digit declines, as incentives were piled on to keep the metal moving.

The PT Cruiser was an anomaly of sorts. Buyers paid above sticker for the car, proving that if you build something that strikes a chord with customers, they'll reward you for it.

Of course, nothing comes without risk. And there're bound to be a few costly missteps as the design envelope gets stretched. Witness the Pontiac Aztek,the slow-selling and widely panned crossover vehicle that is being rushed back to the drawing board for an emergency re-do.

Too many flops and automotive designers may find their hands bound behind them once again. But for now at least the cuffs have come off.

"We're on the leading edge in a renaissance of American design," sums up Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design for DaimlerChrysler. Consumers should get ready to enjoy the ride.

WARD'S AUTOMOTIVE REPORTS


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