CARMAKERS GEAR UP TOP-DOWN MARKETING

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Carmakers are trying to rekindle American drivers' infatuation with open-air motoring.

Some of the passion has gone out of the romance with convertibles in the past two years, coinciding with consumers' rising attraction to sport-utility vehicles and other trucks. Ragtop sales have waned, but new products, increased quality and a generally more optimistic public may revive the drop-top spirit.

Convertible versions of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and BMW 318i were redesigned for the 1994 model year. Volkswagen of America introduced a new Audi Cabriolet last fall and in April brought out the Volkswagen Cabrio, a drop-top variation on its Golf.

"Competition gets consumers looking around. The availability of fresh, good product makes a big difference," said Paul Morel, marketing plans manager for Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division. Mr. Morel said Ford is on a pace to surpass 1989's 36,000 Mustang convertible sales, a record.

The segment reached a high-water mark of 209,000 convertibles registered in the U.S. in 1991, according to ASC Inc., a Southgate, Mich., supplier of convertible systems. But registrations fell 23% in the next two years, to 161,000 in '93.

Chrysler Corp. forecasts a steady rebound in the segment, rising to a record 230,000 units by 1996 or '97, said Ron Hein, marketing plans manager for the Chrysler/Plymouth division.

But marketers will have to overcome several trends. To start, consumers have been trading in cars for trucks, especially minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

Heightened concern about personal safety, including carjackings, may also have played a role, said Jesse Snyder, director-vehicle planning and technology for Autofacts, a West Chester, Pa.-based marketing consultancy.

"When you've got Oprah doing shows on how to avoid physical attack, it's going to give some people real pause about being in a convertible, where they feel more vulnerable than if they were sitting high in a truck," Mr. Snyder said.

Some marketers believe consumers just weren't optimistic enough in the early '90s to be in a convertible-buying mood, a factor that's turning around with the economy.

"There's a huge emotional component to a convertible purchase," said Jim McDowell, VP-marketing at BMW of North America. "Convertible buyers don't cite as many rational reasons for their purchase as other buyers."

"A convertible is a lifestyle statement by the young in spirit," said Larry Nutson, marketing strategies manager for Volkswagen U.S.

One indication of surging interest in convertibles is that Chrysler has been able to pump up sales of its aging LeBaron to 15,118 through April of this year, up 14% compared with the same period in 1993. Chrysler adopted a value pricing strategy, offering the convertible at $16,999 equipped with dual airbags, AM-FM stereo cassette and air conditioning.

Volkswagen used an unusual five-phase direct marketing campaign developed by Visual Services, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to stir interest in its Cabrio, Mr. Nutson said. The effort was aimed at 20,000 prospects who requested more information from auto shows or by calling an 800-number. In the final mailing, each prospect received a miniature Cabrio model in the color the prospect had chosen.

New products on the horizon could keep convertible momentum going. Saab Cars USA will introduce a convertible version of its 900 in July; Chevrolet will bring out a redesigned Cavalier convertible in the 1995 model year; and Chrysler reportedly will bring out the Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Avenger convertibles in the 1995 model year, to replace the LeBaron.

Rod Bymaster, Mazda Motor of America's product manager for sports and sporty cars, suggested another reason convertible sales will grow: improved quality.

"The quality now is getting to the point where they don't leak in the winter, the top goes up easily and it seals well," he said.

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