Pixels To Pavement

When Mazda decided to bring back its legendary RX sports car a few years ago, it feared it would be eating the Nissan Z's dust. The resurrected Z would hit the streets a year ahead of the RX-8. To get a jump on the competition, Mazda considered running RX-8 teaser ads. But still, that didn't seem enough to overcome the deafening buzz the Z was generating. So Mazda tried something radical: it launched the RX-8 in Sony's Gran Turismo 3 videogame two years before the real car debuted at January's Detroit auto show. Mazda execs admit it was risky, revealing their shark-nose sports car in pixels so long before it hit pavement. But that's what it takes, they say, to get in the game.

Automakers are beginning to think inside the Xbox. After all, games like GT3 and Need for Speed by Electronic Arts are turning millions of couch potatoes into living-room racers. Far from being a child's plaything, videogames are becoming the new virtual showroom and design studio for automakers. Videogame-inspired models are hot sellers, and programmers have more street cred these days than car designers. That's why car execs are treating programmers like royalty, turning over top-secret designs of future models and even inviting them into their styling studios to solicit advice. "I get dealer envy," brags Electronic Arts' design chief Bruce McMillan. "I see models years into the future and the dealers only see them six months before they come out."

But dealers aren't complaining about the videogame spinoffs. The Subaru WRX, a souped-up Impreza, has been a sellout since it leaped from the screen to the street two years ago. And now Mitsubishi is launching the $29,000 Lancer Evolution after GT3 gamers peppered the company with e-mails demanding the "Evo," which had been available only overseas. "We're taking advantage of the buzz," says Mitsubishi's U.S. president Pierre Gagnon.

The old-school car business has struggled to build buzz among kids; automakers' "youth models" are not exactly tearing --up the track. Honda acknowledged to NEWSWEEK that its funky new Element SUV is selling more to boomers than the frat boys it originally targeted. Far from being pimply-faced geeks, gamers have the demographics carmakers covet--18- to 35-year-old men with enough disposable income to drop $1.7 billion last year on racing games, according to NPD Group. That's why Porsche debuted its Cayenne SUV simultaneously in Need for Speed and at the Paris Auto Show last fall. "Videogames have managed to get kids fascinated with sports cars again," says Porsche exec Peter Metzdorf, who keeps an Xbox in his office to keep up with the competition.

Now automotive art is imitating virtual life. Videogame-inspired pocket-rocket racers were everywhere at the Detroit auto show. Suzuki's chunky little Concept S featured a steering wheel modeled on a videogame controller, complete with buttons to shift gears and brake with your thumbs. When Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed was trying to dream up youth mobiles for the auto show, he received some smart advice from his kids. Taking a break from their rally-car videogames, they asked, "Why doesn't Chrysler build something like this?" Creed built his answer: the big-wheeled Dodge Avenger concept car that looks as if it fills up at the play station. Giving the role reversal another spin, GT3 producer Kazunori Yamauchi says Toyota has invited him into its studio to help design a real car. Toyota declined to comment. --Yamauchi already designs spoilers and grilles for Nissan Zs in Japan.

A decade ago Yamauchi couldn't even get inside an auto company's lobby. Back then the Japanese carmakers had no time to toy around with his fanciful drawings of a videogame with sports cars. "The car companies didn't understand what the hell their cars had to do with a videogame," recalls Yamauchi, who now has more than 150 models in his game. But even after convincing the car guys, it was difficult to get their graybeard bosses to hand over the keys to a bunch of joystick jockeys. "Everything in the development of a new car is such a big secret," says Porsche's Metzdorf. "It was very hard work to convince the board of directors."

The board will really blanch at what's coming around the next virtual corner: cars in violent games. Some auto execs don't even want their cars dinged up in racing games, never mind serving as a vehicle for a drive-by shooting. "That's not the type of image we want to portray," sniffs Subaru executive VP Fred Adcock. But with the racy Grand Theft Auto selling 9.1 million copies, some car guys are starting to see gory games as no worse than R-rated movies. Ford, after some prodding from MGM, agreed to let 007 drive an Aston Martin in Electronic Arts' new James Bond Nightfire, which, like the movies, includes lots of shooting.

Videogames are making cars such stars that salespeople are becoming almost irrelevant. Just ask Dan Antonielli. Before the 19-year-old bought his Subaru WRX, he test-drove it and tricked it out in different colors on GT3. Now as the Irvine, Calif., college student cruises in his silver WRX, it's as if his favorite game has come to life. "All my friends say, 'Dude, I hate you, but I love your car'." That's the kind of shout-out that goes only to cars that got game.