SNOW HAS SPORT-UTILITY DEALERS SMILING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK

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For marketers of all-wheel-drive vehicles and their dealers, it just doesn't get any better than this miserable winter.

"It's like I'm selling snow shovels or salt. People are taking whatever I have in stock, no matter the color, as long as it's all-wheel-drive," said Subaru dealer Craig Deibler, owner of Lancaster County Motors in Lancaster, Pa.

When New York City was hit by a recent snowstorm, Manhattan Jeep/Eagle fielded a barrage of calls from car owners interested in four-wheel-drive Jeep sport-utility vehicles.

"We were selling them like hotcakes over the phone," said Max Tuta, assistant sales manager at the dealership.

Although the sport-utility vehicle segment has been sizzling for a couple of years, this winter's cold, ice and snow have heightened consumer interest in cars and trucks that are less likely to spin out or leave them stranded.

"I used to think it was pretentious to own a four-wheel-drive vehicle," said Philip Sawyer, director of communications for the Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based Starch division of research company Roper Starch Worldwide.

"Now, everyone is talking about buying a Jeep," said Mr. Sawyer, whose front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry hasn't always been able to negotiate the hills this winter in his Westchester County, N.Y., neighborhood.

Nationally, sales of compact sport-utilities rose 36% in January, vs. the same month in 1993, to 103,087 units, said J.D. Power & Associates. Among the entries, segment leader Ford Explorer posted a 17.9% gain on a year-to-year basis; Jeep Grand Cherokee soared 70.8%; Toyota 4-Runner was up 51.7%; GMC Jimmy, up 48%; Nissan Pathfinder, up 39.5%; and Chevrolet S10 Blazer, up 39.4%.

Subaru of America, which offers all-wheel-drive versions of all its models, racked up a 37% sales increase in January.

Tom Martin, Penn-Jersey regional VP, said that on several top radio stations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Subaru sponsors the weather report when snow is forecast, using the theme line, "Don't be held hostage by the weather." Fowler Advertising, Glen Burnie, Md., handles the regional account.

Chrysler Corp.'s Jeep brand is using winter weather in a new, tongue-in-cheek TV spot that broke on the CBS broadcast of the Winter Olympics. The viewer never sees a specific vehicle, just something burrowing through a snowy terrain until it reaches a mostly buried "Stop" sign, and then flashes a turn signal before taking a left. A title card shows the theme line, "There's only one Jeep." Bozell/North, Southfield, Mich., created the commercial.

"Our biggest difficulty has been supplying enough product to our dealers," said Ed Brust, general manager of Jeep/Eagle.

The demand for all-wheel-drive has been as geographically widespread as the severe weather.

Roger Jolicoeur, regional general manager for Nissan Motor Corp. USA's North Central division, said Nissan Pathfinder sales have been strong in Cincinnati and Columbus, two Ohio cities that aren't usually hotbeds for sport-utilities. He added: "We ran out of Pathfinders in Louisville [Ky.]."

But even for dealers selling all-wheel-drive vehicles, lousy weather has its bad side.

"Our biggest problem right now," said Bob Morande, president of Morande Ford in Berlin, Conn., "is figuring out where to put all the snow."

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