- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

Let's face it. In spite of all those navigation aids, onboard PCs, entertainment systems, wireless communications, and heated seats that massage our rumps, it's the design and styling that persuade more than 80 percent of us to buy a specific car or truck.

At least, that's what BMW's Henrik Fisker says his surveys show.

President of the car company's Newbury Park, Calif., design studio a subsidiary of BMW Mr. Fisker claims that if the exterior design of a vehicle appeals to our emotions, we are more likely to purchase it because of our passion for its stance, lines, and overall appearance than for the electronics and comforts within.

"Many of us have grown up with reliable cars that work, which wasn't the case 25 years ago," said Mr. Fisker. "When we buy new vehicles today our expectations are high they will function correctly as a matter of course. Once people's basic transportation needs are met, they next ask, 'How does it look?' 'Does it suit me?' "

The trend in the automotive industry, Mr. Fisker said, is toward niche cars that are almost tailor made. It's about making individual cars that stand out, that evoke passion and emotion like the New Beetle and the Mini Cooper. He noted that BMW has always realized that making a statement with its models means placing a huge emphasis on design, along with performance.

"The Beetle is a purely emotion-driven concept, but the difference between it and the Mini Cooper is there is also a big emphasis with the Mini on how the car drives."

For BMW, the design begins from the very first sketch of the car.

"Then you have to have early interaction with the engineers every step of the way," said Mr. Fisker. And that can mean sitting around the negotiating table, not only with engineers but also with the top brass and financial officers.

Everyone in the company from the chairman of the board on down must have his or her emotions tied to the new model from start to finish as it reaches final form. "Car designers could be called missionaries because we have to motivate the rest of the company, including those who control the budgets."

BMW's hot new Z8 pitted engineer vs. designer at one point. The engineers wanted to lengthen the wheelbase 70 millimeters. Otherwise, they said, there would not be enough room for the rear axle. Mr. Fisker felt that if the wheelbase were lengthened more than 30 mm, it would ruin the design. The Z8's development chief asked Mr. Fisker if he could live with a compromise of 50 mm. No, he told him. It should be 30 mm. The development chief turned to his engineers and said, "Make it 30 mm."

"With the design of the BMW Z8, some people at the company wanted to enlarge the taillights. Although they suggested adding a mere 10 millimeters, I didn't want to do that," said Mr. Fisker, "because it didn't look right; it changed the proportions of the car. The same with the X5 sport utility vehicle. It needed massive wheels. We conceived it with 19-inch wheels that are placed all the way out." Currently, the X5 comes with 18-inch wheels, with 19-inch as an option. "We also wanted to design an SUV more as a car than a truck that is stable going around corners, and can be driven along the highways safely at high speeds."

BMW's new 3-Series convertible presented similar problems. The designer wanted the roadster to have a low, lean look. The engineers said they needed the back of the car higher than the studio design. "The car was a week away from being rolled out when company executives refused to sign off on the car if the back end wasn't lowered. It took a lot of extra time and money to change it, but in the end, it was worth it. It's more beautiful now."

Beauty is not something you reinvent every day, BMW's designer believes. "You can look back in history to the Greeks. What was beautiful then is still beautiful now. There are certain elements that set in stone what beauty is."

Erik Fisker is convinced that BMW's latest niche car designs do just that.

MOTOR MATTERS


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