CHEVY BACK ON TV TO LAUNCH REVAMP OF ITS TRACKER SUV: LARGER AD BUDGET LIKELY VS. RIVALS HONDA, TOYOTA

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Chevrolet is moving its entry-level Tracker SUV uptown. And the coming-out party in January will mark the marque's return to national TV advertising, after a four-year hiatus.

The fully redesigned 1999 model, "re-engineered from the rubber to the roof, is bigger, more powerful and more refined," said John Middlebrook, general manager of the General Motors Corp. division.

Tracker relied on regional TV ads in 1996 and print in 1997, said Phil Carlisle, assistant brand manager for the small sport-utility.

The redone model will get national TV and national print, including magazines and newspapers, Mr. Carlisle said, via Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich.

Mr. Carlisle declined to reveal ad spending for the new-model launch. In 1996, Tracker received a $13 million push; last year, the figure dropped to $9.5 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting. For the first half of '98, spending was $432,000.

RIVALS SPEND MORE

Industry experts say the brand will have to spend more on advertising if it wants to compete against segment leaders American Honda Motor Co.'s CR-V and Toyota Motor Sales USA's RAV4. Honda spent $32.7 million last year on the CR-V and $19.9 million during the first half of 1998, while Toyota spent $19.3 million last year and $11.1 million through June '98 on its RAV4.

"Whether or not Chevrolet can get beyond the perception of Tracker as a low-end, entry product is probably the biggest challenge they have," said Bob Schnorbus, an auto industry analyst at J.D. Power & Associates.

Those brands have staked out a fair share of the market for buyers wanting a small SUV, he said.

And, while Tracker was originally an entry-level vehicle, the SUV market has broadened.

`VEHICLE NEEDS POLISH'

"There is a market for a vehicle about that size, but it needs a bit more polish to it and better handling capabilities," Mr. Schnorbus added.

Chevrolet said it has given the new Tracker a "drastically improved four-wheel-drive system," more refinements, more comfort and more horsepower.

The division sold 33,354 Trackers last year, and 16,886 units through September of this year, according to Automotive News.

Mr. Carlisle said Chevy expects to sell about 50,000 Trackers in calendar 1999.

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