HYUNDAI'S BIG HOPES ARE ON LITTLE ACCENT

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Hyundai's first U.S. customers in 1986 were incredibly naive. Buyers of the carmaker's new '95 Accent may be presciently savvy.

As the lowest-price car in the U.S., the $8,079 Accent "conceivably will come across as the best value in the small car market," said Chris Cedergren, an analyst with market researcher AutoPacific, Santa Ana, Calif.

In a market overrun with new models, that's precisely what Hyundai Motor America needs to put distance between Accent and the problem-plagued original Excel, which didn't exactly live up to its name. Accent is "a make it or break it" model, said Maurice Bowen, director of marketing at Hyundai.

The new model will get Hyundai's entire ad budget for the next six months, an estimated $40 million. The new "Some of the best ideas on the road" tagline will be introduced in a campaign from Bates USA, Irvine, Calif., with network TV spots starting Feb. 15.

Sales in the subcompact sedan and basic two-door model segment grew 13% last year to 2.1 million cars, accounting for about one-fourth of all car sales, according to J.D. Power & Associates. That growth rate is more than twice the rate of the overall car market. Four holdover models-Ford Escort, Saturn, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla-make up more than half of the segment's sales.

Mr. Cedergren said all the new models should succeed in getting close to their makers' sales goals. That's partly because the car market remains relatively healthy.

But it's also the economics of the segment: The low profit margins of subcompacts and weakened financial shape of Japanese marketers don't leave much room for a costly marketing battle to reshape leadership in subcompacts.

Hyundai, for example, projects sales this year of about 60,000 Accents. That's a little more than one-third of first-year sales a decade ago for the model it replaces, the Excel.

While Hyundai is getting back to basics, giants Toyota Motor Sales USA and Nissan Motor Corp. USA are moving upmarket with their entry models, the Tercel and Sentra. Toyota hopes to sell 80,000 Tercels; while the volume is little changed, Toyota expects nearly half to be decked-out deluxe models selling for about $13,000.

The new Tercel was unveiled with Toyota's first infomercial in December, produced by Hudson Street Partners, an affiliate of Toyota agency Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Pacific, Torrance, Calif.

Nissan expects to sell 110,000 Sentra sedans, also little changed. But it anticipates the biggest volume from a $13,449 model with power windows, cruise control and air conditioning. The new Sentra starts at $10,999, down 7.3% from the old car.

The new Tercel and Sentra have little in common with their econobox roots. While loaded models are more profitable, Toyota VP Robert Maling said there's also little demand for stripped models.

Nissan will begin its Sentra TV campaign next week, promoting the sedan as "Nissan's next big idea." A print campaign, also from Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., begins in March magazines.

Mazda Motor of America held the price on the new version of the Protege sedan but already has stuck on rebates up to $1,000.

This spring, American Suzuki Motor Corp. will introduce the sleek subcompact Esteem, backed by local TV and national print ads from Asher/Gould, Los Angeles. Sales goal is about 1,000 cars a month.

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