Dave Marek and John Mendel
Honda  /  Wieck
Honda Americas’ chief designer Dave Marek, right, and senior vice president John Mendel show off the Acura Advanced Sedan at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
updated 12/6/2006 2:40:36 PM ET 2006-12-06T19:40:36

A parking lot next to a sandwich shop in Glendale, Calif., is not the sort of place you might expect to find inspiration, but it’s where Dave Marek finds the motivation to design the cars of tomorrow.

“There’s a small car club that meets there and you’ll see Enzo Ferraris or Lamborghini Murcielagos. I’m constantly stunned by what I see, but that’s Los Angeles for you,” said Marek, who is Honda’s chief automobile designer. “Cars are really very important to people who live here, so to get excited about car design you really have to be somewhere like this. If I lived anywhere else, I don’t think I’d be as motivated about car design.”

One of the world’s top markets for luxury vehicles and home to the largest collection of design studios backed by automobile manufacturers from the United States, Europe and Asia, Southern California is the undisputed hub of automobile design.

Little wonder then that showcasing automobile design is an important part of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

This year’s event, which runs through Dec. 10, is no exception, with big automobile companies eager to show their commitment to hot new car designs. A majority of the prototypes on show in Los Angeles this week were probably dreamed up in Southern California.

Marek and his team regularly visit hot rod shows, tuner meetings and other car gatherings to gauge the latest auto trends in a city that has long been known for its tradition of expressive freedom and openness to new ideas. It’s part of the Honda ethos, he says.

“If you’re building a car for the youth market you can go watch kids surf or skateboard. Or if you want to make a high-end car you can go do Glendale or Bel Air,” he said. “Other cities have all this, but it’s not as obvious or on the same scale as L.A.”

The first automobile design studios appeared in California in the 1970s, and 16 have sprung up since then. The idea is create an environment away from the car company’s headquarters where designers have the freedom to think outside the box. The location allows designers to draw on California’s multicultural environment and trend-setting reputation.

Other big car companies are showing off their concept vehicles at this year’s show, including Mazda’s Nagare, Volkswagen’s Tiguan compact SUV, the Hyundai Hellion crossover, a handful of concepts powered by alternative fuels and a Ford Mustang version by renowned Italian designer Fabrizio Giugiaro.

There’s also a Hummer SUV that runs on clean, fuel cell power and includes algae-filled panels that transform harmful carbon dioxide into pure oxygen, which is released back into the air.

The car, which show visitors will see only in sketch form, is the creation of GM’s advanced design studio and winner of a contest in which nine of the local automotive studios imagined a time where car consumers could enjoy the distinctive car-driven lifestyle without harming Southern California’s unique environment.

“They realized that an automobile spends a great deal of its time parked, so the idea of those algae filled panels is to turn sunlight into energy, and we thought it took the Hummer brand in a new direction,” said Stewart Reed, chairman of the transportation design department at Los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design and one of the competition’s judges.

“One of the things this competition says about automobile design in the future is that it can become more regionalized,” Reed said. “The old ‘one size fits all’ mentality that says a car can be sold in the Sun Belt and also in Alaska may not apply any more. You can have a vehicle that’s optimized for a particular environment like Southern California, and it makes sense.”

Reed also says the design competition shows a growing desire on the part of automakers and consumers for more efficient vehicles.

“People are saying if this is part of the world that came up with technological advances like SpaceShipOne, we should be using these technologies to advance automobiles,” he said. “And I think it has reached an energy level and commitment that I’ve never seen before.”

“So the next big thing in car design will be another big strong wave of making cars that are extremely efficient,” Reed continued. “And if we are going to satisfy the public’s appetite for high levels of luxury and automobile features, like in-car navigation systems, we’ll need to do it with a car that’s lightweight and efficient, and that means a dramatic rethink of the materials we use.”

For its part, Honda is showing three concept cars at this year’s show — the boxy-but-practical Step Bus, the futuristic REMIX roadster and the Acura Advanced Sedan Concept, a muscular silver sedan that mixes an ultra-modern exterior with a luxurious feel.

The Honda and Acura prototypes, which are on public display for the first time at this week’s auto show, are not likely to be seen on the road any time soon, but they hint at a new design direction for Honda and its luxury brand, which wants to carve out its own distinct look and feel.

Several of Acura’s vehicles of the past decade have been designed and developed in the United States, including the MDX luxury SUV and the RDX crossover SUV.

Now Honda plans to expand its U.S. design capabilities. This week, it opened its third California design studio — the Advanced Design Studio in Pasadena, Calif., that will focus on designing Honda cars that will go on the market in eight to 10 years. Another, the Acura Design Center, will open next year and focus exclusively on market research and design for the Acura brand.

“We want to show we are in the big boy playground and do some things that are scary and bold,” Marek said. “We’re still going to build our cars like the Accord, because that’s our bread and butter, but these days everyone buying a car wants something unique and so we wanted to get something out there that’s going to satisfy that public demand.”

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