America's next top model?
U.S. automakers use glitzy models to drive sales of everyday cars
The Ford Shelby. The Pontiac Solstice. The Toyota FJ Cruiser. They are some of the hot cars consumers are flocking to see at the Greater Tarrant County Auto Show this weekend, and local dealerships, particularly those that sell U.S. cars and trucks, are banking on these talked-about cars to bring more customers into showrooms and, hopefully, boost sales of their less-glitzy models.
"If you don't have a flashy car, they'll walk right by your production cars," said Robert Pafford, a County Line Ford sales representative who was at the Ford booth at the Fort Worth Convention Center. Ford is showing off its 2006 GT and a concept model called the Shelby GR1.
Although consumers love hopping behind the wheels of expensive luxury and sports cars at auto shows, most don't drive away from a dealership in one. For Grapevine resident James Westmoreland and others like him, the $150,000 price tag on the two-seat GT puts it out of reach.
"I'd like to buy the Ford GT, but I'd have to sell my house," Westmoreland said. "So I settled for the Mini Cooper," he said of his second, "fun" car that he drives on weekends.
Instead of purchasing the sleek hot rod that may have persuaded them to visit a showroom, consumers usually buy the car or truck that fits their everyday lives, industry analysts say. The top car model in the U.S. remains the staid, yet reliable, Toyota Camry.
"Most people buy practically, as a means to get from point A to point B," said Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer at Consumer Reports.
For U.S. automakers that have continued to lose market share to Japanese manufacturers, analysts say it is critical to generate a positive buzz with one or two models each year to get customers in the door."It remains to be seen when the Camaro and the Challenger come out in 2009 if everybody who wanted to get a Mustang already did," said Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer at Consumer Reports.
"If the product doesn't sell itself based on reputation, resale value and image, then you have to get people in the door in other ways," said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com, a consumer automotive Web site.
"Those [types of cars] are needed to get people in the showrooms. Once people come to the dealership room and look around at different cars, you have their attention and they are a captive audience."
Among the Big Three U.S. automakers, Chrysler was the first to successfully create that kind of buzz for its cars with the PT Cruiser, Toprak said.
When the Cruiser was first produced in 2000, consumers quickly lined up for the car that had a 1930s gangster design. Some waited months for delivery.
Chrysler followed the success of the PT Cruiser with its luxury sedan, the 300C, and the Dodge Magnum station wagon.
As a result, the carmaker has posted two consecutive years of market-share gains, while Ford and GM have lost ground.
"With these new models, it's brought buyers in that would never have considered Chrysler," said Chris Kreska, a sales consultant at Allen Samuels Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Fort Worth. With the different types of models introduced by Chrysler, a younger generation of car buyers is visiting the dealership, unlike the mid-1990s, when most of its cars were sold to middle-aged and older customers, Kreska said."If the manufacturer wants to draw on its glorious past, they can't produce an impractical, expensive model. They have to look at ways of making it appeal to more customers," said Shenhar, who is concerned that some of the planned muscle cars from the U.S. automakers may be too late to the market.
Ford and GM seem to be following Chrysler's lead, introducing affordably priced models that are stylish and exciting to U.S. car buyers. Analysts said Ford's reinvented Mustang has improved sales at the automaker and generated a lot of interest in the Ford brand.
And for GM, the Pontiac Solstice, a two-seat sports car, has succeeded in attracting customers where the Pontiac GTO failed.
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by Andrea Ahles
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Sunday, March 05, 2006