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The new hot cars: Va-va-vroom

The Ferrari is a fine example of Italian style.  

By Gail O'Neill

(CNN) -- One of the most enduring cliches in the automotive industry is that, from DNA to exterior design, cars reflect the people who create them.

That's especially true in terms of designers' nationalities, says Ken Gross, an auto writer and frequent contributor to Playboy magazine.

"No one but the Italians could have come up with the Ferrari," he says. "They're quick, stylish and flirty."

And the Germans have built their reputation on "rock solid, pedal-to-the-metal, 'get-out-of-my-way' strength," Gross says.

Americans specialize in trucks and sport utility vehicles, adds Gross. "They embody a bold, adventurous, go-anywhere ethic. And they make a strong visual statement that's in your face."

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The positive side of having a market driven by so much competition and ingenuity is that consumers wind up with a broad range of choices when looking for a new car. But too many choices, say manufacturers, have only confused shoppers.

In an effort to re-focus the buying public, the industry has reached into its past to revitalize its future.

"Whether with furniture, fashion or cars -- whenever there are great design elements from the past that can be lifted and updated, they will be," says Mark Healy, a senior editor at GQ magazine. "And in terms of branding, whenever car manufacturers can remind consumers of their glory days, that always translates into profit."

Tales of 'Birds and Beetles

Jennifer Slake, a PR person for Ford Motor Company, says she agrees. Slake crossed the country promoting the new Thunderbird and says that "no matter where I went, somebody had a T-Bird story they wanted to tell me."

Her favorite tale came from a California couple.

"I got a Thunderbird for my 16th birthday," recalls the woman. "I parked it at the beach one day, and when I came back a complete stranger was standing there, telling me how he'd put a dime in the meter when it expired."

The new Thunderbird  

"'I just couldn't let such a pretty car get a ticket,'" he said.

The two went on to date, marry (yes, they did drive away from the church in the two-seater) and start a family -- at which point they had to give up the Thunderbird for the sake of practicality. But they never forgot the car. Thirty years later the husband tracked it down (through the vehicle identification number), had it completely refurbished and presented it to his wife as an anniversary present.

The Volkswagen Beetle is another example of a blast-from-the-past buggy that some people can't get enough of.

Said by marketers to be the second most-frequently recognized shape in the world (after the Coca-Cola bottle), these cars "are essentially logos on wheels for Volkswagen," says Phil Patton, author of "Bug: The Strange Mutations of the Volkswagen Beetle, the World's Most Famous Car," a book to be published by Simon and Schuster in August.

"Cars are an expression of who we are," Patton says. "We use them as fashion accessories. And just like other fashionable things -- we all want to have something different than the guy next door."

J Mays takes that philosophy one step further. "Our homes show what we are, but our vehicles show what we want to be," says Ford Motor's vice president of design, who had a hand in the popular New Beetle when he worked at Volkswagen in the early 1990s.

Maxis and minis

Cadillac XLR
2003 Cadillac XLR  

On the opposite end of automotive fantasies from VWs are big American cars -- say, Cadillacs. The new Cadillac XLR's muscular lines might bring to mind those of a fighter jet. The design harkens back to the high, pointy fins created by GM's legendary designer Harley Earl in the 1950s.

"Cadillac has had a long-standing love affair with American fighter jets like the Stealth bomber," says Jeff Kuhlman, Cadillac's PR director. "The chiseled lines on these aircraft are the purest example of form following function. The XLR's direction was completely inspired by this uniquely American innovation in product design."

And that brings us to a car that's inspiring more superlatives than a Don King production: the BMW Mini Cooper.

"It is the car to be seen in for 2003," raves Jim Hall of the AutoPacific marketing and consulting firm.

"I just returned from test drives in Portugal, and the Mini Cooper was an out-of-the-ballpark, home run hit," says Gross. "It's solid as a rock, feels like a little brick, handles really well and has punch."

Mini Cooper
The new Mini Cooper is "the car to be seen in for 2003," says one commentator.  

In its heyday -- the late 1950s and '60s -- the classic was driven by the Queen of England, David Bowie and all of the Beatles. The Mini transcended class, becoming the ultimate "fashion-less" statement in Britain.

The reincarnation is still small enough to dart into the tiniest parking spaces in urban areas (where it's expected to be most popular), but in terms of safety and engineering it's all grown up.

David Champion of Consumer Reports compares his original Mini with the updated version. "The new one is much more comfy. It has overall interior quietness, two sunroofs, leather seats, six airbags. In a nutshell, it makes a complete mockery of the old Mini. For the price, it is really a refined car."

Maxis and minis

Has your small fry outgrown the joy of Big Wheels?

Maxis and minis

If so, it may be time for an upgrade. Go Cart World in Newnan, Georgia, sells Hummers that are custom-made for pint-size passengers.

These hot wheels feature fully independent front and rear suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, AM-FM stereo cassette, transmission (with reverse), adjustable leather seats and full detailing. Only 15 limited editions are available each year.

Cost: $30,000.

Maxis and minis

Referred to as "halo cars" by industry insiders, the Thunderbird, Beetle, Mini Cooper and XLR are all signature vehicles designed to change the public's perception of what a company's brand represents.

Maxis and minis

"The object," says Car & Driver's editor-in-chief, Csaba Csere, "is to create buzz, not a bestseller."

Big on style but short on substance, these supermodels are typically produced in limited quantities, have massive sex appeal and are peerless in terms of generating residual business for manufacturers.

Maxis and minis

David Vestal is a sales representative at Ferrari of Atlanta, and experience has taught him that looks can be deceiving. "We get our share of high-profile celebrities and athletes who buy from us," he says, "but our core client is the successful entrepreneur. They're not pretentious, they're not fancy -- but they are very confident. In fact, they typically walk into the showroom wearing shorts, flip-flops and a $20,000 watch."

Hence, the maxim among Ferrari dealers worldwide: "If he's wearing a tie, he ain't gonna buy."

Maxis and minis

The automobile industry is following the lead of companies like Swatch, Apple and Nokia -- all of which seem to think that limited-edition colors can generate renewed interest in an old product.

Maxis and minis

Volkswagen recently introduced the Beetle in "Shock Orange," and sure enough, sales were boosted across all divisions.

And look for an increase in the number of silver cars and trucks on the road over the next three to four years. Currently viewed as the shade that best shows off the shape of a vehicle, designers claim the color gives cars a "tool-like" appearance that customers appreciate. Apparently, when it comes to justifying the expense of an automobile, it helps if the car is viewed as piece of machinery as opposed to a toy -- the Beetle being an obvious exception to that rule.




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