Not your dad's wagon

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Crossover sport wagons are the next trend, analysts say, but the experts are waiting to evaluate consumer reaction before declaring them a segment.

"It's definitely the new buzz vehicle," says Jim Hall, VP-industry analysis at consultancy Auto-Pacific. "If it really succeeds, it will redefine the small car segment. If it's only pretty successful, it will create a new segment."

"Manufacturers [such as Toyota Motor Sales USA] have made a $600 million to $800 million investment and see enough impact that they're not scared of it," Mr. Hall says. Advertising and media costs can reach $100 million or more to launch a new vehicle, says one agency executive. The latest sport wagons are aimed at the active outdoor crowd, mostly under age 35, who want the versatility and functionality of a sport-utility vehicle, as well as the style and performance of a sports car.

Mazda North American Operations' five-door Sport, a techno-edgy sport wagon, will be available in May as an early 2002 model.

"We discussed it as being something sportier, zippier, with more pizazz than the typical C-class passenger segment; it's really a five-door version of the Protege with more edge and attitude," says Gary Roudebush, product marketing manager for Mazda. "We don't believe consumers are too concerned about what to call it. We know it's car-based-and the industry is more interested in categorizing it than the buying public."

Mazda says it will position the crossover as part of its "Zoom Zoom Zoom" brand campaign created by Doner, Southfield, Mich.

Between May and July, the Sport will appear on TV shows popular with young audiences such as "Ally McBeal" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Media buys for "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Saturday Night Live" are being negotiated, and print advertising supports. In early May, an online contest will give away new vehicles, complementing product trading cards directing people to the Web.

Toyota, meanwhile, is betting on its Matrix to capture the outdoors crowd with its edgy hot-rod silhouette design and futuristic styling cues such as "edge-web" body panels.

CATEGORY BUSTER

Steve Sturm, VP-marketing for Toyota Division, predicts the next-generation Corolla-based Matrix will be compared with a whole slew of vehicles and will pull consumers from many segments. "The Matrix is a category buster and will be marketed to lifestyles. As an early category buster, we're pioneers," Mr. Sturm says. "It's very contemporary, very futuristic."

At General Motors Corp., executives say it's too early for ad plans, but the Pontiac Vibe is positioned below the hybrid Pontiac Aztek in size and price.

"Vibe is a cross-wagon, but it's also like a small SUV with more utility than a typical car and slightly larger than the PT Cruiser," says Craig Bierley, brand manager for Pontiac Vibe.

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