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   U.S. Automakers Top Record
 
Southern California:
The New Car Capital?

Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — General Motors plans to open a new auto design center in Los Angeles in a bid to tap Hollywood's computer animation expertise to shorten the time it takes to get a car from the drawing board to the showroom.

GM unveiled its plans Wednesday night at a party linked to today's opening of media preview sessions at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, where carmakers from around the globe plan to debut 20 production and concept cars.

The show opens to the public on Saturday and runs through Jan. 16.

GM's salute to Hollywood isn't the only recent acknowledgment of Southern California's influence on the global auto industry.

More than 20 new cars will debut during the preview, a record for a gathering long overshadowed by the prestigious North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Last year, LA snared six debuts, including Honda's S2000 roadster.

And Ford Motor Co. is thinking about moving the U.S. headquarters of its Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin brands from New Jersey to Southern California. They would join Lincoln-Mercury, which moved its corporate offices to Irvine in 1998.

The increased attention reflects automakers' recognition that Southern California, with its diverse, immigrant-laden population, provides a window to world markets.

"They're looking for fresh perspective. They're becoming global and global is not always viewed from the perspective of Detroit," said Thad Malesh, director of North American forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.

Southern California has long been a center for auto design. The region is home to an estimated 20 design studios, including independent contractors and shops operated by major carmakers Ford, Volvo, DaimlerChrysler AG, Volkswagen, Mazda, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Many of the designers working in those studios are graduates of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

"You've got a pool of talent. It's becoming a kind of Silicon Valley of auto design. There's a critical mass that maybe can't be duplicated in Detroit," Malesh said.

The GM center's 30 or so employees will include computer-assisted design experts recruited from Hollywood animation and special effects companies, GM spokesman Scott Foscard said.

GM plans to use computer techniques such as three-dimensional imaging to replace tedious clay modeling in the early stages of new car design. The goal is to reduce the time needed to bring a new car to market from about four years to two, Foscard said.

GM needs to work faster to handle an accelerated program for bringing concept cars to the production line, Foscard said. During 2000, the company will unveil about a dozen concept cars — as many as seven could become production models.

Hollywood, which has pioneered the use of computer graphics to create stunning special effects in recent years, is considered ground zero for the new technology.

To head the new operation, GM hired a veteran car designer with Hollywood connections. Frank Saucedo, 38, chief designer at Volkswagen's design center in Simi Valley, will be chief designer for the new GM facility. In addition to work for automakers, Saucedo helped design the Batmobile in the 1995 film "Batman Forever."

"We're looking to tap into this pipeline. That's why we're here," Foscard said.

The company already has a significant presence in Southern California.

General Motors operates a technical research center in Torrance and is developing new onboard navigation and Internet systems through its Hughes Electronics Corp. subsidiary, said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's auto transportation studies program

Looking to escape overcrowding at the Detroit auto show, carmakers are planning world debuts of seven new production and 14 concept cars at the LA show.

The lineup will include several new-generation sport utility vehicles designed to combine the ruggedness of the SUV with car-like handling such as Pontiac's Aztek and the Mazda Tribute.

In the luxury car category, Rolls-Royce is expected to unveil a pricey new model identified by Automotive News as a new version of the Corniche convertible that was discontinued in 1995. A Rolls-Royce spokesman declined to confirm that, but noted that California would be a key market for such a vehicle.

The Detroit show has become so crowded with debuts that carmakers figure they will get more attention in Los Angeles.

"You get a lot better bang for your buck if you spread these introductions across the country," Cole said.

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