ASIAN CARMAKERS, led by the Japanese, are serious about designing cars for European tastes.
Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Honda all run European design studios, mostly in Germany. Koreans Hyundai and Daewoo have them, too.
'Our studio in Germany was founded in 1995, but effectively operational' 18 months ago, says British designer David Cutcliffe of Hyundai Motor Europe's engineering center in Mainz-Kastel, Germany. His studio consists of only five or six designers, and Hyundai has not yet conceived anything for the European road yet, but it did present the Euro concept roadster at Geneva this year.
Daewoo has a large studio in the UK where it works in close cooperation with the Korean home base, but it has not yet created an exclusive European design.
'But we consider European flavor in all our designs,' said Ginger Ostle, design director of Daewoo. 'The Nubira emerged from a cooperation between us, our Korean studio and an external designer.'
Daewoo's Leganza and Matiz were created in close cooperation with Italdesign in Turin. The Shiraz concept car of 1996 was Daewoo's first European design effort.
The Worthing design center with 110 staff (including design engineers) is apparently the largest Asian-owned studio in Europe.
Nissan was a pioneer.
For the Micra, it consulted a Dutch trendwatcher working in Paris. The company accepted her suggestions for a basically Japanese design created mainly for Europe.
When the car hit the market in 1992, it was considered warm and cute by the press.
'But the public did not accept it immediately, so it was a slow starter,' a Nissan executive said. Sales have increased steadily, and 1997 was the Micra's best year.
Toyota has decided to market new models with a higher European design content. But the new Avensis and Corolla are still Japanese designs that were monitored by Toyota's Brussels studio.
Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda told his European design staff, 'If a car sells in Europe, it will sell everywhere.' John McLeod, who managed the design process on the new Yaris supermini, is convinced of his company's intent to create pure European designs.
'We worked in freedom, without strain from bureaucracy, to create our new car,' he said. 'The result is a clear, simple and tasteful design which expresses a pure European image.'
The Yaris was exclusively designed for Europe, and reflects a lot of market research to realize a pure European design, McLeod said.
'We have been studying European taste since 1994, even before starting the small car design,' he said.
In Brussels, Toyota employs Japanese designers alongside those from European countries, including Greece, the UK and Germany.
Hyundai has not yet reached that stage.
'The new Atos is made in Korea without any changes to appeal to European customers,' said Cutcliffe of Hyundai Motor Europe's engineering center in Germany. 'As a result, it still looks oriental.
'Europeans do not like chrome decorations or fancy interiors,' he said. 'They need to see a grille on a car, and a bit of formal styling. Otherwise it does not express a quality feeling.'
But Hyundai understands the importance of Euro design.
'We firstly have to change the stance, make it look more solid, with larger wheels,' Cutcliffe said. 'Then the face of the car is slightly disproportional, so we must alter that, too.'
Interior trim is important as well. 'Driver and passengers are faced with it every day,' said Cutcliffe. 'So it is important. But Europeans are a bit dull in this respect.'
He predicted that when Hyundai's Turkish factory comes on stream, products emerging there will express a strong Euro design content.