New entries hit the road in crowded SUV market

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Get ready for a flurry of new sport-utility vehicles. Next up: General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac brand, which is readying an estimated $30 million ad blitz for its first SUV entry -- the Aztek.

This summer, Ford Motor Co. will launch its all-new Ford Escape and sibling brand Mazda's version, the Tribute.

The SUV segment is expected to grow by some 25 new models in the next four years to roughly 70 models, experts said. The list includes first offerings from Daewoo Motor America, GM's Buick and Saturn brands, Hyundai Motor America, Porsche Cars North America, and Volvo Cars of North America, along with new arrivals from American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura Division, Toyota Motor Sales USA and Land Rover North America.

20% GROWTH

The entire segment currently accounts for some 2.1 million unit sales annually, said Don Butler, Pontiac Aztek brand manager. A 20% sales growth in the category in the next two years is reasonable considering the number of new arrivals. Another projection he cited predicts annual sales reaching as high as 3 million in four to five years, which would include so-called hybrid or crossover SUVs.

Hybrids combine body types, like a car chassis with an SUV topper. In Aztek's case, the SUV body sits atop a modified Pontiac Montana minivan chassis.

"You'll see more and more of these vehicles with trucklike characteristics that will blur the lines" of vehicle segments, said Mr. Butler. Targeted Aztek buyers "don't want a traditional SUV, which are tending to all look the same. They don't want to blend in with the rest of suburbia."

Mr. Butler prefers to call Aztek "a sport recreational vehicle" aimed at active singles and couples ages 25 to 40.

Jim Hall, VP-industry analysis at consultancy Auto Pacific, said Pontiac "isn't as tainted as some other brands" because it has a neutral brand image among young buyers. "Neutral is good," Mr. Hall said, because it doesn't have to overcome negative perceptions of being an unhip, old person's brand.

National TV commercials for Aztek break May 31 on CBS' "Survivor." Aztek is the show's only auto sponsor.

The ads from the Troy office of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles are tagged "Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet." The heaviest TV push starts in late August on network and cable, and continues through November. They will air in several California markets in June along with outdoor. Print hits in September magazines, including Bicycling, Newsweek, Outside, Sports Illustrated and Time.

Aztek has gotten its share of pre-launch activity. On May 20 in Malibu, Calif., Pontiac turned over an Aztek to 20 essay-writing winners of the "A-List Adventure Contest." They'll drive it for 45 days and post their comments about the vehicle on the Web site aztek.pontiac.com.

ENVIRONMENTAL, SAFETY ISSUES

Ironically, while the SUV market continues to grow, Ford acknowledged at its May 11 shareholders meeting the challenges SUVs pose: namely, trying to juggle consumer needs and a commitment to the environment. The marketer admitted SUVs burn more gas and can be dangerous to other motorists. But the market demand shows no signs of letting up.

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