Chevy claims midsize car crown

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General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Division is boasting about the success of its midsize cars.

The Chevrolet Impala, Monte Carlo and Malibu earned a bigger percentage in sales and market share than major competitors from January through August 2000, bragged Kurt Ritter, general manager of the division, in a recent statement.

The industry released September sales Oct. 2. Chevrolet described the midsize category as the industry's largest, adding that all automakers combined sold more than 2.8 million midsize cars in the U.S. from January through August.

GM's current brand management system, adopted in 1995, uses a customer needs segmentation to target vehicles at groups of prospects who want the same attributes in a vehicle. "We have a midsize car for everybody," said a Chevrolet spokesman.

But observers question GM's multicar strategy, since the company has long been criticized for having too many vehicle lines.

"I think the numbers are enough to show you don't need three vehicles if you do one vehicle right in the first place," said Wes Brown, an analyst with marketing researcher Nextrend.

Mr. Brown contends Chevrolet's midsize cars are also competing with the division's own four-door pickups, Venture minivan and Blazer sport utility, which he dubbed "surrogates for the family car." Chevrolet is also competing with midsize cars from GM's other divisions, including the Oldsmobile Intrigue, Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Regal, he said.

`SOME CROSSOVER'

The Chevrolet spokesman conceded there is "some crossover" of shoppers among the division's three midsize cars. But he said the demographics of buyers are different for the three vehicles. Buyers of the Malibu sedan, which starts at $17,595, have a median age of 47; 55% are male, 68% are married and 37% have college degrees.

For the two-door Monte Carlo coupe, which starts at $20,170, the average age of the buyer is about 50; roughly 55% are male, 57% are married and about 27% have college educations. As for the Impala sedan, the average buyer's age is 58; 57% are male, 83% are married and 37% are college grads. That same percentage of Malibu buyers are college grads.

The advantage to Chevrolet's three models is the division can target different customer niches, said Bob Schnorbus, a director of consultancy J.D. Power & Associates. But the strategy means more expense for product development and advertising, he added (see chart above).

Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., is the agency for all three Chevy models. Its spots for Monte Carlo have used Warner Bros.' animated Tazmanian Devil since 1998 to tout the car's wild side. In Impala ads, Chevy shows carefree driving, looking out at various U.S. landscapes from inside the sedan with the retro theme music "See the USA in Your Chevrolet." The music was dropped for this year's campaign. Campbell-Ewald's current Malibu spot touts its durability and standard features via a "possessed" shopping cart trying unsuccessfully to take on the car.

`PRETTY STRONG' RIVALS

Toyota Motor Sales USA's Camry, American Honda Motor Co.'s Accord and Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Taurus are "pretty strong entries" in the segment, said Jim Hossack, VP at consultancy AutoPacific. He said the comparison should be between the sales volumes of each of those three competitors with Chevrolet's. "Chevrolet is selling maybe 500,000 [units annually] for three cars, so it's half as efficient as the competition with more expense."

Through August, the Chevy division reported that of the 153,680 Malibus sold, only 86,857 units were retail sales. That means the rest were fleet sales, which are sold to commercial buyers such as rental car companies which pay less per vehicle than at retail. Of the 48,264 Monte Carlos sold through August, 40,777 were sold at retail.

The Chevrolet spokesman said the Impala and Malibu are among the most profitable car lines for GM.

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