THEY'RE PART CAR, PART TRUCK AND NOW ALL THE RAGE: HYBRID AUTOS APPEAL TO AGING BABY BOOMERS

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The next hot vehicles will be part truck/part car hybrids, industry experts are predicting.

Subaru of America's newest hybrid entry, the 1999 Outback sport-utility sedan, will be launched this week via a $4 million ad push on national cable TV and in 10 spot markets. Print ads, the first of eight buys in USA Today, break May 4.

Subaru plans to increase its 1998 ad spending by about 13%. Last year, it spent $78.8 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Temerlin McClain, Dallas, again tapped Paul Hogan -- who introduced the first Outback three years ago -- to tout the vehicle's rugged capabilities and stylish looks.

AMC FIRST HAD IDEA

The Outback, first produced as a sport-utility wagon, started the current hybrid trend when it picked up on an idea from now-defunct American Motors Corp. That marketer's four-wheel-drive Eagle wagon, sedan and hatchback from the 1970s were probably ahead of their time, said Art Spinella, VP of auto consultancy CNW Marketing/Research.

AMC was acquired and absorbed by Chrysler Corp.

Auto expert Wes Brown, a consultant with Nextrend, said the hybrids -- which use a car chassis but are built higher off the ground than passenger cars though not as high as SUVs -- offer passenger-car comfort with smoother, carlike driving.

"A lot of baby boomers are aging and want something that's easier to enter and exit" than an SUV, said Mr. Brown.

Even Generation X buyers are attracted to certain car-based station wagons with all-wheel-drive, he added. Nextrend expects Volkswagen of America's all-wheel-drive Passat sedan, arriving this fall, to be a hit with Gen X.

"You're going to see the level of growth for conventional SUVs slowing," Mr. Brown said. "Hybrids will be very strong in the next decade."

Nextrend estimates hybrid vehicles will account for 1 million unit sales in the U.S. before the end of the next decade.

Car-based SUVs include Subaru's Forester, Toyota Motor Sales USA's RAV4, its luxury Lexus Division's new RX300, American Honda Motor Co.'s CR-V and Volvo Cars of North America's Cross Country.

Mr. Brown said BMW of North America, Audi of America, General Motors Corp.'s Saturn and Ford Motor Co. are either planning or considering hybrids.

LOTS COOKING

"Nearly every carmaker has something cooking that's a little askew of being categorized" as a car or truck, Mr. Spinella said.

The media flight for the new Outback ads will be about two months because Subaru expects to sell only about 5,000 Outback sedans annually, said Tim Mahoney, director of marketing.

The sedan version of Outback was a natural, he said, because "a lot of people are cross-shopping SUVs and sedans."

Mr. Mahoney noted that he's seen competitors at this year's auto shows touting their new hybrids as combining the best attributes of cars with traditional SUVs.

"We've been doing that since 1994," he said. "I think the rest of the industry honestly is saying Subaru is onto something. It's kind of nice to be out front."

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