Subaru readies Impreza WRX for U.S. debut

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Subaru of America is shifting gears.

The auto marketer, which started the crossover-vehicle segment with the Outback all-wheel drive wagon in 1994, now is readying the debut of a performance model, the 2002 Impreza WRX. And the estimated $15 million ad campaign doesn't feature Australian actor Paul Hogan, spokesman for Subaru since 1994-instead, it makes its WRX the star.

The first TV spot in the effort, breaking later this month from True North Communications' Temerlin McClain, Dallas, uses virtually no narration. The sound comes from the rumble of the car's 227-horsepower, turbo-charged engine. There's also some footage of the car performing in the World Rally Championships, in which the WRX has competed and won three times in the last decade,

but which aren't well known in the U.S.

Subaru already has more than 3,000 presold orders for the WRX, said Don Hicks, a dealer in Aurora, Colo., and chairman of Subaru's dealer council. Under pressure from dealers, the automaker upped WRX shipments to the U.S. from 10,000 units to 12,000 this year, he said. Subaru also will add a pickup truck to its lineup in calendar 2003, which will help it reach its U.S. sales goal of 250,000 units annually in five years, said Fred Adcock, Subaru exec VP.

WRX has its own Web site (www.imprezawrx.com), handled by DVC Interactive, New York, a unit of DVC Group. "Power and precision in one exciting package," the home page says. The WRX "turns heads just as quickly as it turns corners," copy in another area of the site states.

Before the Web site officially launched during the Detroit auto show in January, some 3,000 hackers visited it. They ordered 250 brochures and 60 vehicles, Mr. Adcock said.

He's not concerned Subaru will repeat errors of the 1980s that nearly put it out of business. "What got the brand in trouble back then was trying to deliver low-cost products to compete against Toyota [Motor Sales USA] and [American] Honda [Motor Co.]," he said. While the performance strategy is new to Subaru, he said the crossover-vehicle segment is huge and continues to grow.

More carmakers are entering the sport-wagon segment, however, so Subaru will face more competition. General Motors Corp. has owned 20% of Subaru's Japanese parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, since last April.

The WRX, sold abroad for nearly a decade, has had "a small cult following in this country who have been begging" for the model be sold in the U.S., said Wes Brown, an analyst for consultancy Nextrend. Subaru has an older owner base, and this model will help attract younger buyers to the brand, he predicted. "We've definitely seen growth for high-performance cars," especially for Mercedes-Benz USA and BMW of North America, he said.

`IN-YOUR-FACE' VEHICLE

The manual, five-speed WRX wagon starts at $24,020 including destination charges. The manual sedan starts at $25,520.

New Jersey Subaru dealer Rich DeSilva said his traditional buyer is 40-something, but he believes the WRX will attract buyers in their 20s and 30s. "This car is a little more in-your-face" than the traditional Subaru, he said.

The auto marketer inked a deal last week with the Sports Car Club of America that will provide WRX buyers with a free membership to the club and 12 monthly issues of its SportsCar magazine.

Subaru spent $97.5 million in measured media in the first 11 months of 2000, according to Competitive Media Reporting. The marketer sold 172,216 vehicles last year, a 9.8% jump from 1999, according to Ad Age sibling publication Automotive News.

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