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Car trends mirror age of individual style

At the LA Auto Show, carmakers cater to consumers demanding customization, convenience available on the Net. Images: California dreamin' for concept cars

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
LOS ANGELES--The Internet appears be driving one of the latest trends in car manufacturing: Get what you want in the style or shape you want it.

Here at the annual LA Auto Show this week, automakers are showing off concept cars and new-production vehicles that give consumers an unprecedented ability to drive in personalized style. Carmakers attribute this trend to changing consumer habits and appetites brought about by the conveniences of the Internet.

"Because of the Internet, people can get anything they want at any time. Car manufacturers are starting to see that and need to cater to it," said Victor Muller, chief executive of Netherlands-based Spyker Cars.

For example, Suzuki featured a series of "life vehicle" concept cars with names like Sea, Wave, Dunes and Blizzard, all aimed at people who love activities that those names evoke. The Suzuki Blizzard 2006 is customized for snowboarders, for example, with rooftop carriers for boards, in-car boot heaters, studded snow tires and a backseat chairlift seat for suiting up or drinking hot toddies.

The Suzuki lifestyle cars are based on the company's Grand Vitara production vehicles, which start at $23,000. Buyers must visit a dealer to customize their own vehicle.

Porsche executives also talked about revving the company's production line toward individualism with its newest sports car, the Cayman S, which was unveiled here Wednesday. Although it still accelerates at a fast clip, the Cayman S is a midengine coupe billed as a "practical sports car" that bridges the gap between the Boxster S roadster, on which the Cayman S is based, and the 911 Carrera, according to the company.

Novel concepts

Volkswagen also unveiled its newest concept car, the VW GX3, which is designed to appeal to California commuters. A cross between a motorcycle and a sports car, the GX3 is a three-wheeler, seats two, and can be driven legally in the carpool lane.

Derek Jenkins, Volkswagen North America's chief designer, thought of the idea for the GX3 roughly 18 months ago because, as he tells it, he was jealous of all the cool, smaller cars people can buy in Europe. Together with a team called the Moonrakers, a VW think tank for dreaming up new cars, Jenkins envisioned a simple but fuel-efficient vehicle for getting around the city and to and from work.

On display in LA

The GX3, which Jenkins hopes will generate enough consumer enthusiasm for it to go into production in 2007, has a tubular steel frame, aluminum rollover protection and no windshield. It weighs roughly 1,300 pounds and gets 46 miles per gallon. The price is yet to be set, but will be under $17,000.

"The buying public is really open-minded right now," Jenkins said. "Hybrids are common in the public mind, for example. This is a really exciting time for

us because people may adapt to it."

It's conceivable, given that the last VW concept car to find success with the public is the updated Beetle.

In addition to the influence of the Internet and the desire for increased fuel efficiency, consumer trends have been driven by the auto industry itself. The trend toward individualism in cars surfaced in recent years with the popularity of vehicles such as BMW's Mini Cooper, which can be customized in many different colors and styles via the Mini Cooper Web site. Demand for the car outstripped any expectations BMW originally had for sales, company executives said.

Many new production vehicles also offer remarkably advanced technology.

On Wednesday, Mercedes unveiled its newest car, the Mercedes 2007 S Class. With a price tag of $145,000, the luxury sedan includes two complementary radar and infrared beams that can detect obstacles 500 feet ahead. The radar can record the speed of vehicles in front of your own on the road, and if the system detects a braking problem, for example, the car will prime the brake system for better response and raise the seat backs so airbags will perform better.

Of course, in the car market, customization can come at an even heftier price.

Victor Muller
CEO, Spyker Cars

Car builder Spyker, for example, featured a $325,000 made-to-order prototype sports car at the show. The all-aluminum vehicle runs on a powerful 12-cylinder engine and has a top speed of 196 miles per hour. It can accelerate to 60 mph within 3.9 seconds.

Buyers of Spyker cars are so pampered, they can request specialized appointments such as dashboard instruments from watchmaker Chronoswiss, or they can watch production of their car via Webcam on the Internet. Spyker, founded in 2000, is the first carmaker to allow people to follow production of their car online, Spyker CEO Muller said.

In fact, Muller said, the Web made it possible to start his car company, given the costs and high hurdles to secure licenses for distribution.

"Without the Internet, it would have been impossible. It allows us to access processes, manufacturers, suppliers and technologies like never before possible."

Spyker has also received a nod from Hollywood. The company's Spyker C8 Laviolette is driven by actress Sharon Stone in the upcoming "Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction."

Spykers are also catching on with the Hollywood set. Muller said several movie stars have preordered the vehicles, which take months to deliver, once ordered.

"People don't want to see the same car next to them at the stoplight," he said.