EURO BRANDS HEAD STATION WAGON SURGE: LUXURY CARMAKERS LEADING CHARGE AS SPORT-UTE, MINIVAN ALTERNATIVE

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Station wagons are carving out a new niche in the luxury car segment.

Sales of luxury wagons have been increasing annually and will reach about 55,000 this year, predicted Wes Brown, an auto analyst with consultancy Nextrend.

"European brands are leading the way," Mr. Brown said.

When minivans and sport-utility vehicles crimped the old family standby, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. stopped making them. Lower-price station wagons once had sales of more than 900,000.

The current players are Mercedes-Benz of North America's E320, with a sticker of $46,500; Volvo Cars of North America's V70, at $35,000; and Audi of America's A4 2.8-liter Avant, starting at $31,000.

CHANGING SOCCER PRACTICE

Those three marketers put a total of $34.4 million in measured media advertising behind their wagons in 1997, according to Competitive Media Reporting, with Volvo accounting for most of that. It spent $31.1 million to launch the new V70 line last fall.

Volvo will introduce a smaller V40 sportswagon, now on sale in Europe, in mid-1999, in hopes of attracting younger buyers. Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, is the agency.

Later this month, Audi will begin advertising for its redesigned 1999 A6 Avant station wagon. It will use national cable, spot TV, magazines and newspapers.

"The A6 Avant is the kind of vehicle that's going to change soccer practice forever," said Cameron McNaughton, senior VP-management supervisor at McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., Audi's agency. "It will bring a whole new sense of style and elegance to the traditional family vehicle."

This fall, Audi will bring out the A4 Avant with a smaller, 1.8-liter engine. The model will be priced lower than the 2.8-liter model, at $25,000.

"We're trying to broaden our market," said Doug Clark, public relations manager at Audi.

Saab Cars USA will re-enter the category next spring with a wagon built on its 9-5 sedan chassis, having left the category in the mid-1970s.

"We see it as a growing market opportunity," said Dan Prescott, product communications specialist at Saab. "We think a lot of people buying sport-utilities are tired of driving trucks, and these offer the same sort of utility but are much more comfortable and carlike."

Saab's agency is Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.

FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE

BMW of North America, via Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, expects to introduce a touring station wagon built on its 3-Series car platform in fall 2000.

"A lot of people are beginning to realize sport-utilities don't really have the handling of a conventional car, so they're moving to station wagons," said John Rettie, president of auto consultancy johnrettie.com. "With the station wagons of today, there's no loss of the performance and handling of a luxury sedan."

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