JAPANESE SPORT-UTILITIES KICK OFF AT SUPER BOWL;TOYOTA PREPARES $50 MIL-$60 MIL LAUNCH ON NBA ALL-STAR GAME IN FEB. FOR RAV4

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The Super Bowl kicked off an intense drive by the Japanese into sport-utility vehicles, with a battle between redesigned versions of Japan's top two SUVs, the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder.

The biggest move, however, will come next month, with Toyota's introduction of the hotly anticipated RAV4.

Toyota Motor Sales USA will support the 4Runner with an estimated $20 million to $30 million campaign that began in mid-January and hit full throttle with yesterday's 60-second spot from Saatchi & Saatchi/Pacific, Torrance, Calif.

Nissan Motor Corp. USA ran a 30-second preview spot during the game for Pathfinder; the full estimated $30 million to $40 million campaign from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., is set to begin Feb. 15.

Ads for Toyota's RAV4 splash will start Feb. 11 on NBC's National Basketball Association All-Star Game. The vehicle is a nimble $15,000 to $23,000 SUV that's created a sensation in Japan and among car enthusiasts.

RAV4 A TEST CASE

"Everyone's watching RAV4," said Jesse Snyder, president of automotive consultancy Snyder Research. "It's a real test case for the rest of the Japanese industry."

Irv Miller, Toyota's corporate advertising manager, contended the RAV4 has the potential to create a new category, much as happened with mini-pickups two decades ago.

"In a sense, we have to establish the name as well as define the segment," Mr. Miller said.

Toyota is planning a launch campaign on the scale of the big 1995 Avalon sedan, suggesting a $50 million to $60 million effort running through September.

AD DEPARTMENT DILEMMA

The vehicle "presents a dilemma to the advertising department because we really don't know what the market segment is," Mr. Miller said. So the coming effort is a one-size-fits-all campaign-"an execution that leaves something to your imagination" and interpretation, he said.

Japanese marques remain far behind Detroit in the booming sport-utility market. The 4Runner, the top-selling Japanese model, last year had record sales of 76,000-less than one-fifth the volume of the No. 1 sport utility, Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Explorer.

Nissan has made its Pathfinder more carlike to give the product mainstream appeal and attract more women.

The TV campaign, and accompanying print, direct mail and Web ads, will continue the safari theme Nissan introduced in its Super Bowl :30. The drive runs through the first two quarters and then returns for the Summer Olympics, of which the Pathfinder is official import SUV.

Nissan also is developing a syndicated TV show, sponsored by Pathfinder, featuring celebrities and sports figures pursuing outdoor adventures.

PRODUCT-AS-HERO

Toyota's campaign for the more trucklike 4Runner includes the Super Bowl :60 and two :30s, all of which use a product-as-hero theme showing the vehicle running with wolves.

Other Japanese niche sport-utilities are starting to crowd the road. Toyota's Lexus and American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura hope to sell about 5,000 units each of two new luxury sport-utilities, the Lexus LX 450 and Acura SLX. Nissan's Infiniti will weigh in next spring.

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