Chrysler sniffs a trend: coffee in, ashtray out Smokers fume over cup holder

January 05, 1994|By New York Times News Service

DETROIT -- Having weighed Americans' vices, Chrysler Corp. has determined that they prefer caffeine and sugar to nicotine.

The company's next new family sedan will be the first mass-market car since the days of wooden wheels and fold-down windshields to come without an ashtray. In its place will be an additional cup holder.

Old habits may die hard, particularly in Detroit, but when the designers of the new Chrysler compact sedan tried to cram in all the doodads that buyers crave, they found themselves scratching their heads over that murky little compartment with a designation only an auto executive or a Pentagon analyst could concoct.

"When we got to the ash receiver, we said, 'Jeez, most people don't even use this thing,' " said Stephen Bartoli, 33, the nonsmoker who is the product planning manager for the new cars, called the Chrysler Cirrus and the Dodge Stratus. Instead, they added a cup holder for a mug of coffee or an oversized drink.

But nonsmokers need not worry. They will still be able to plug in telephones and radar detectors, using an outlet instead of the lighter. And the designers built in plenty of nooks to stuff those coins, tokens, receipts and graying wads of well-chewed gum.

Sorry, still no trash can. While Chrysler has experimented with onboard trash compactors, officials said that with buyers demanding air bags, graphic equalizers and space for their compact discs, there simply was not enough real estate.

Indeed, attempting to satisfy the plebeian needs and Sybaritic pleasures that Americans expect to be fulfilled in their beloved automobiles -- from commuting with coffee to blasting music to romancing one other -- is an intricate, Faustian affair. Automobile interior designers must make hundreds of trade-offs.

Over the years, the needs of passengers have been met with everything from heaters that popped up in the form of hot-water bottles at the turn of the century to radios (1929); air-conditioning (1938); ignition keys (1949); record players (1956); and trip computers and CB radios in the 1970s. Ashtrays came in the 1920s.

For Chrysler's designers, abandoning the ashtray was a pretty easy call. Only 16 percent to 17 percent of new car buyers smoke, according to Chrysler's research. But it could turn out to be a pretty bitter 17 percent.

"What's the name of this model just so I don't accidentally buy one?" asked Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, an industry group.

Mr. Merryman said he was not comforted by the fact that smokers could have their dealers install ashtrays and lighters for free. "The whole idea would be a turnoff to the smoker, because what you're saying is, 'You're not as welcome a customer.' "

Anti-smoking groups were delighted by Chrysler's decision. "We applaud it," said Sharon Jaycox, director of prevention and school health for the American Lung Association. "We've actually in the past written to the three major American carmakers recommending that, so we're very excited."

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