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Old 07-14-2003, 07:29   #1 (permalink)
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United States: Grand Theft Auto

New York Times
By PHIL PATTON

Cars have all sorts of devices to protect them from being stolen. Car designs are just there for the taking.

No shrill alarms warn passers-by to step away from a distinctive body shape. No global-positioning satellites track the perpetrators of roofline larceny and automatically alert the patent police. No late-night advertorials sell locking clubs to prevent wheel patterns from being purloined.

But on the road, drivers are more and more likely to do double takes on automotive double shapes. Doesn't that new Nissan Maxima look like a larger-scale Saturn Ion? Could the Kia Sorento be a Lexus RX 300 in disguise? Doesn't the face of the Nissan Z look like that of the Toyota Celica (and its taillamps like those of the Lexus SC 430)? Is that the new Bentley or the new Hyundai?

A few years ago, people complained that cars in general were beginning to look alike. But now cars in specific are looking more and more like other cars. Aerodynamics were once blamed for the melding of shapes into a common silhouette. Today, all designers confront the same detailed safety and economy standards, and they all work with the same "space packages" of dominant vehicle types, from minivans to S.U.V.'s to the blended vehicles known as crossovers.

But today's designers also communicate more with one another and move more often among companies and across continents. Many attended the same schools, notably the Art Center College in Pasadena, Calif.

In January, at the designers' party during the Detroit auto show, a Woodward Avenue club was packed with an all-star cast of designers from companies including Mitsubishi, Porsche, General Motors, Ford, BMW and Rolls-Royce. A bad seafood salad would have crippled the global auto industry.

Imitation pays the compliment not only of flattery, but of admiration. Jaguar's chief designer, Ian Callum, says certain seminal models have had such profound impact that they influence all the cars that come later. "The Porsche 911 was one, of course," he said. "The Audi TT was a watershed."

Today, admiration for the designs of Audis and Volkswagens has infected the looks of Nissans, Mitsubishis and even Fiats. Several leading designers now suggest that Nissan is setting the design standard, which would be a first for a Japanese company.

Success naturally breeds imitation. "Good artists copy; great artists steal," Picasso supposedly said, though the quotation itself has been swiped by others.

"Hommage" is Hollywood's polite word for this process. When Brian De Palma tumbled a baby carriage down a staircase in "The Untouchables," he paid homage to a similar scene in a 1925 Sergei Eisenstein film, "The Battleship Potemkin." But one man's hommage is another's petty theft. The Chrysler Crossfire's side vents pay homage to the car's corporate cousin, the Mercedes SL 500, but putting a Bentley rump on a Hyundai is something else.

Sometimes it is easy to see which of two similar cars came first. The Infiniti FX45 was already in production when its lines were shadowed by the Lexus HPX, a design study for a similar sport wagon. Since Lexus has not announced plans to build the HPX, it cannot be charged with theft, only intent. But in other cases, given the long progress of designs from sketch to metal, precedence is less clear. Did the Ion or the Maxima come first? (Another sedan with the counterfeit Ion roofline, the 2004 Mitsubishi Galant, isn't on sale yet.)

Some manufacturers use styling to suggest visually that their cars are the equal of more expensive models. Korean automakers seem especially unabashed in borrowing styling from more exclusive models, recalling the cloners of sunglasses who display dozens of styles with a sign that says, "Compare in price with Oakley." Or with Ray-Ban or Armani or Versace.

"Compare in price with Jaguar" may be the message of the Hyundai XG350's prominent grille, which also resembles those of Infinitis. The same car's rear suggests, "Compare with Bentley Arnage." The Hyundai Sonata's amoebic headlamps say, "Compare with Mercedes"; they look much like those of the C-Class.

Some styling features are borrowed because they send a more specific message. The signature of Jaguar's sporty R series cars is a black mesh grille that resembles medieval chain mail. When Cadillac wanted to signal that its new CTS-V was also a high-performance model, it added a mesh grille, too.

The Five-Hundred sedan in Ford's future looks like an Audi. No surprise, perhaps, since Ford's design chief, J Mays, was once in charge of Audi design. And the look is appropriate for the Five-Hundred's mission: to offer European luxury at an American price.

Many auto designs are ostensibly protected by design patents, which are far harder to enforce than technical ones. Mr. Mays's name is attached to several design patents, including one for the Concept One, precursor of the New Beetle.

"We get design patents on our work," said Joe Dehner, a Chrysler designer. "But that is more to protect against after-market manufacturers of replacement parts."
Last year, for the first time in memory , a company went to court to protect a design. DaimlerChrysler sued G.M. over similarities between grilles of Hummers and Jeeps, but failed to win in court. Chrysler also sent warning letters suggesting that grilles of the Lexus RX 300 and Kia Sportage were too close to Jeep's.

And G.M. sued a tiny Florida company, Avanti, over its design for a hulking S.U.V. that would revive the Studebaker nameplate. G.M. contends that the Studebaker looks too much like its Hummer H2. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 18.

In his 1973 book "The Anxiety of Influence," Professor Harold Bloom of Yale suggests that poets start out trying to imitate older poets they admire. Those who have real talent fail at the effort, of course, and produce original works despite themselves. The idea may apply to car designers as well: sometimes, poetic license includes a license to steal.
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