Innovation & Design

Next Year's Model


Matt Vella went to the L.A. Auto Show to preview the best and brightest in car design at the nation's most high-profile auto exhibit

You have to be crazy to drive in Los Angeles. Studies from the likes of the Texas Transportation Institute show that the city's dozen major freeways are the most congested and slowest moving in the country. "Rush hour" lasts, on average, eight hours each weekday.

But the glut of vehicles reflects the all-pervasive importance of car culture in Southern California. America's largest new car market—worth $109 billion last year, according to the California Motor Car Dealers Association—is also one of the world's most vibrant and diverse, from the hip-hopping West Coast Customs to the ultra-posh Bentley of Beverly Hills. In recent years, L.A.-bred fads have made sales juggernauts of both the eco-friendly Toyota (TM) Prius and the fuel-profligate Cadillac Escalade. Since the early 1980s, the city has become a key battleground for global automakers desperate to wow consumers and outdo competitors with fresh, cutting-edge design.

In this special report, we tour auto design's center stage, the L.A. Auto Show, held annually since 1907. The area's vibrant auto community—15 manufacturers have design studios in town—comes out in full force for the event, packing the show floor with executives, designers, and creatives. This report shows how companies such as Mazda (MZDAF), Audi, and General Motors (GM) are banking on design to sustain the future of their businesses. Revered Japanese designer Shiro Nakamura unveils the reworked Nissan (NSANY) GT-R, a masterpiece of engineering and globally influenced design. Ford (F) design chief J Mays discusses the future of retro-inspired styling. And, a tour of the Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com gives a glimpse inside one of the innovative companies that feeds consumer interest even after the show closes down.

The progressive design on display here is only likely to keep the city's highways jammed. Indefinitely.

Matt Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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