LOS ANGELES - 'Nobody seems to know we build anything here.'
That is both an advantage and frustration for Dan Sims, chief designer for Mitsubishi Motors R&D of America in Cypress, Calif. While being a stealth design operation keeps snoops away, it also brings the occasional puzzled silence on the other end of the phone from suppliers.
'It's not like we have a foundry here, but we do design and fabrication,' Sims says. 'We are evolving to do more here.'
Starting as a small color-and-trim operation and designing one-off concepts such as the Teknis show car, Mitsubishi's U.S. design studio has moved on to much bigger things.
Five years ago, the parent company handed it design authority for any vehicle that was to come out of the Normal, Illinois, assembly plant. That means the two biggest sellers for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc., the Galant and Eclipse.
Because Mitsubishi Motors now allows its U.S. design center to create vehicles from the sketch pad up, the automaker should have a better chance of succeeding in this market. Why? Because it can listen more effectively to its retailers and customers, reduce its reliance on imported components, and ultimately reduce the Japanese company's reliance on sales in Asia.
Just two things
Its latest production may be the best example. Even though the sporty-coupe segment is languishing, Mitsubishi's Eclipse is the automaker's traditional volume leader in America. It accounts for about one-third of all Mitsubishis sold here.
Making sure the 2000 Eclipse would be a stylistic smash would be paramount, given America's fickle coupe market.
Mitsubishi concluded that its U.S. designers have the best sense of the local market. Headquarters gave the team just two requests: Make the car a little more upscale, and give it a bigger back seat. The rest would be left up to the Americans.
'There was (virtually) no input from Japan at all. This was clearly our assignment,' says Roger Zrimec, studio director for Mit-subishi Motors R&D of America.
'All Japan told us was that we needed something that the current Eclipse owner would step into as his next car.'
Since the California studio was the sole design house, it built three full-scale clay models from which management could choose: a fastback, a notchback coupe and a hatchback coupe. The latter choice was the unanimous selection.
From that point, the California design studio was in constant contact with engineers in Japan to make sure the engineering limitations fit the parameters of the design freeze. Then the factory and suppliers were brought on board.
Mitsubishi's California design studio has grown in prominence while bringing along a cadre of North American suppliers eager to display their innovations, especially with show cars.
While the Mitsubishi factory usually works directly with suppliers to get their parts for production cars, the design studio works with North American suppliers to get parts for concept cars. Often a supplier's show car innovations will find their way into the production model.
'We'll call people out of the blue,' Sims says. 'Putting their new idea in a concept car gives them more exposure than a stand at the SAE show. And it gets us excited because we're small and can't tinker with high-tech items like LED headlights.'
Usually suppliers are brought in before the design fix, during the theme approval phase, Sims says.
Mitsubishi designs most of the hard parts of a car using a software technology called stereo lithography. It then approves the final surface rendering. Mitsubishi also allows suppliers to change the build process if the idea promises a more efficient process.
'Our idea of `design-in' is not just where the supplier designs the part, but where the supplier has a different process that can do it for less money,' Sims says.
For items that are not brand-sensitive, like interior dome lights, Mitsubishi doesn't mind outsiders bringing in their own ideas, Sims says.
Being able to work closely with U.S. suppliers has given Mitsubishi more freedom in vehicle development. A case in point: the recent U.S. design project for the SSU concept sport-utility.
The SSU was larger than any light vehicle Mitsubishi had ever rolled down an assembly line, larger even than a Chevrolet Suburban. Its mission was to make a splash at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, usually dominated by the domestic automakers.
To do that, the small Mitsubishi design studio needed outside help. Among the supplier contacts for the SSU job were:
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which contributed 31-inch, custom low-profile tires that were teamed with 20-inch wheels specially milled by CTEK Automotive.
Visteon Automotive Systems, which built an industry-first laser taillight system.
Recaro GmbH, which made the custom-colored seats, although Mitsubishi added some bolstering later in the process.
Working closely with the suppliers allowed Mitsubishi's design studio to build the SSU show vehicle in four months.
When the SSU was on the show stand, many reporters dismissed it as a wild styling exercise typical of a California studio. But the same Mitsubishi California staff also designed the SST coupe concept. That design was a wild interpretation of a raw quarter-scale proposal of the 2000 Eclipse.
'Both the SST show car and Eclipse production car came from the same quarter-scale model,' Zrimec points out.
'Our concepts should be realistic on the show stand, to look like maybe we should build them. They are serious, not just a dream.'