DETROIT IN OVERDRIVE WITH LAUNCHES FOR '94

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Detroit automakers are back with a vengeance.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. used auto shows in Detroit and Los Angeles last week to flex their muscles on the heels of a 1993 sales surge, when they collectively gained 1.6 share points in the $250 billion U.S. new-vehicle market.

The domestic automakers sold nearly 10.3 million cars and light trucks, a 10.5% increase from 1992, according to Automotive News.

The Detroit automakers last year capitalized on consumers' growing fondness for minivans and sport-utility vehicles and a price advantage over Japanese nameplates caused by a stronger yen. They were also boosted by aggressive leasing and option-packaging strategies, attractive new models such as the Chevrolet Camaro sports car and Dodge Ram pickup, and an improved image based on quality improvements.

It's a complete turnaround from two years ago, when their products were generally derided as stodgy and unreliable.

For 1994, Ford and Chrysler are targeting the small family-sedan segment, replacing aging models with sleek new cars to challenge Japanese entries like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Mitsubishi Galant.

"This is really the bastion of import car penetration," said Robert Lutz, president of Chrysler, which unveiled its new Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus compact sedans.

Those cars will be introduced this fall, about the same time Ford brings in the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.

Further down the road, GM's Cadillac division is gearing up for an assault on the small luxury-car segment, where imports like the BMW 325 and the Lexus ES 300 have the field to themselves. Cadillac displayed the LSE, a midsize sedan being developed jointly with GM Europe and expected to reach the U.S. market in 1996.

The car symbolizes the global strategy of Jack Smith, GM's president-ceo, who is pushing for closer cooperation between the company's North American and European operations.

The domestic companies are also preparing to launch several other critical new products.

Chrysler will start an estimated $80 million send-off for its new Dodge/Plymouth Neon subcompacts with a 30-second teaser beginning Jan. 15 and running to the Super Bowl on Jan. 30, when it will air a 60-second spot just before kickoff. BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., created the campaign.

With pricing starting at $8,975, the Neon will compete for Generation X buyers as well as older, economy car shoppers.

Ford will aim its new front-wheel-drive Windstar at the heart of the minivan segment now dominated by Chrysler, said Steve Lyons, Ford Division general marketing manager. Ford is expected to spend $50 million-plus on the ad introduction, breaking March 24 via J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit.

GM divisions Oldsmobile and Buick will bring out near-luxury models this year. The Buick Riviera coupe, priced at $27,332, will be introduced in April or May. About the same time, Olds will start selling its $31,995 Aurora sedan, a new image leader for the division as it tries to remake itself as an upscale version of GM's successful Saturn line.

Of course, importers will be fighting back. For starters, Nissan Motor Corp. USA VP-General Manager Earl Hesterberg cautioned reporters at the Los Angeles Auto Show against lumping all the Japanese car companies together.

"The story is a pretty simple one of winners and loser: Domestics win, Japanese imports lose," he said. "But I'm here today to remind you it's not that simple .|.|. There is one import nameplate that, like Chrysler, was written off by the media just a few years ago but that also came roaring back in 1993. Nissan."

The importers are also waging war with new vehicles. American Honda Motor Co. just introduced its first sport-utility, the Passport, and by early 1995 will bring in its first minivan. Honda's Acura division announced it will be the first Japan-based company to design and build a luxury car in the U.S.

South Korean automakers are poised to become more formidable players. Hyundai Motor America will introduce a redesigned Sonata sedan on Feb. 15. Kia Motors America is planning to move its first model, a below-$9,000 sedan, into some western markets this month and plans to complete a national rollout by the end of 1995.M

Cleveland Horton and Leah Rickard contributed to this story.

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