Automakers push AWD as hot option beyond the Snowbelt

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All-wheel-drive systems on cars and trucks are gaining traction in the marketplace. The systems, once popular only in snow country, have been popping up in more models within the past five years and gaining ground in warmer climates.

In 1999, all-wheel drive was available only on 22 models-12 cars and 10 trucks, which include sport utilities, according to auto information site Edmunds.com. In 2004, the total was 73 models-38 trucks and 35 cars. Virtually every automaker now offers all-wheel drive as an option on at least one model.

In the past, all-wheel drive was relegated to off-roading, SUVs or snow driving. But the safety pitch is now giving way to a fun-to-drive positioning. Audi touts its all-wheel-drive Quattro system as giving drivers the ability to accelerate into the curve. And Subaru's Forester SUV with an optional turbo engine and standard AWD "can blow the doors off a Mustang GT with a kayak on the roof and kids in the back seat," a spokesman said.

"The mentality is changing as AWD is becoming an effective tool to sell a different aspect of performance, handling and acceleration," said Mike Chung, pricing and market analyst at Edmunds.

Nissan North America's luxury Infiniti division started offering all-wheel drive as an option last February on its FX SUV and last fall on its G35 sedan. In October 2004, 54% of all G35 sedans sold were all-wheel-drive models, said Scott Fessenden, marketing director of Infiniti. He projected AWD vehicle sales across the industry will continue to grow, especially in sedans and in the luxury segment. Infiniti's M35 sedan will offer optional AWD when it arrives next spring.

J.D. Power & Associates said 13% of all cars and trucks sold in 2002 had AWD and predicted that will rise to 30% of the industry's total sales by 2011. AWD cars are poised for growth, said Anthony Pratt, a senior manager at Power. In 2002, roughly 100,000 cars with AWD were produced in the U.S. or 6% of total industry sales; by 2011 that will double to 6% or roughly 400,000 units, he said.

Mr. Pratt said Subaru of America and Audi of America have extensively marketed the systems for more than 20 years, "so they were really ahead of their time in that regard. Now there's more competition."

Subaru is the only carmaker to offer AWD as standard on all its models and uses it as its main brand differentiator, a strategy it started in 1996. Although in 1994, Subaru still offered two-wheel drive models, it introduced "the beauty of all-wheel drive" as its ad tag that year in the first work from its new shop, Interpublic Group of Cos.' TM, Dallas. Subaru is still using that line even though its strategy may change under recently appointed agency Omnicom Group's DDB, New York.

Subaru's `calling card'

Subaru, traditionally most popular in the Northeast and snowy West, started to evolve AWD in 2001 by adding performance to its positioning with the U.S. launch of the Impreza WRX sedan, a popular European World Rally car. AWD improves handling on dry roads and allows drivers to accelerate in turns, a spokesman said. Current ads tout the technology of AWD and turbo engines, but "all-wheel-drive is still Subaru's calling card," the spokesman added.

Audi's AWD system, trademarked as Quattro, went on sale in the U.S. in 1982 on a couple of models. That year, Audi sold 285 vehicles with Quattro, a spokesman said, and by 1994, the year after it was first offered as a standalone option, rose to 3,432 units. As of October, the tally jumped to 50,375 units. Globally, Audi sells Quattro on about 20% of its models, said Norbert Seitner, product planning team leader at Audi of America.

"One reason our [U.S.] share is so high is ... we started a strategy using Quattro to position our brand" in ads, he said. "Others are now following us, which is gratifying because we are still ahead but it takes away our unique positioning." Havas' McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., handles the account.

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