Selling Crossovers Is Easier Than Defining Them

Consumers, Automakers Are Enamored of Vehicle That's More Car Than Truck

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DETROIT ( -- Crossover vehicles are hot, even though Americans don't understand exactly what they are and auto execs can't agree on a definition.
Kia is launching its first crossover, the Rondo.
Kia is launching its first crossover, the Rondo.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, said his research found that "consumers have no idea what a crossover is. They are totally confused." But people like crossovers -- they're buying them in droves because the vehicles are new, they're not trucks or minivans and they have a smoother drive than trucks, the auto consultant said.

Kia's first, the Rondo
Kia Motors America is rolling out its first crossover, the Rondo. The automaker's VP-marketing, Ian Beavis, said a crossover is a car-based, taller vehicle with the utility characteristics of an sport utility vehicle but the advantages of car-like handling -- and "that's exactly what Rondo is." In fact, Rondo shares its engine, transmission and chassis components with Kia's Optima sedan.

A carmaker without a crossover in its lineup would be like an automaker without a minivan in the 1980s or an SUV in the '90s, Mr. Spinella said. He predicted the Rondo should do well because the brand, along with Kia affiliate Hyundai Motor America, "are starting to get some really good word of mouth."

Mr. Beavis said Kia hopes to sell more than 20,000 Rondos this year and the launch blitz from independent David and Goliath, Los Angeles, marks the first phase of a brand-wide campaign that will liken owning a Kia to belonging to a fun club.

And while crossovers are hot, Kia is entering an even hotter sub-set, the compact crossover.

Gaining market share
Compact crossovers, with contenders such as Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V, sold 1.4 million units in the U.S. last year, nearly a 17% increase from 2005, said Tom Libby, senior director-industry analysis at the Power Information Network. In six years, compact crossovers have begun capturing market share, grabbing 8.5% of the market last year, and 7.12% in 2005, he said. And their appeal, especially with families, may lie with what they're not: big SUVs or the dreaded minivan.

Mr. Libby said brands such as Nissan, Dodge and Jaguar are hurt by not having a compact crossover. Nissan, which already sells the mid-size Murano crossover, adds the smaller Rouge this fall.

At the same time mid-size SUVS, which include the Ford Explorer, "have taken a real hit," he said. The segment posted a 17% sales decline in 2006 vs. 2005, the biggest drop among the 26 vehicle categories Power Information Network tracks. Market share for mid-size SUVs dropped from 8% in 2005 to 6.86% last year. The entire U.S. industry saw sales drop by only 2% in 2006 vs. the previous year.

Mazda North American Operations expects buyers for its second crossover, the mid-size, seven-seat CX-9, to be "looking for an alternative to ponderous, boxy-type SUVS," said Chris Hill, vehicle line manager. Mazda hopes to sell about 25,000 this year, but eventually 40,000 annually; the mid-size crossover category tallied sales of 650,000 units in 2006, Mr. Hill said. The competition includes Toyota's Highlander and Honda's Pilot.The CX-9 starts at just under $29,000. The automaker also markets a smaller CX-7.
Mazda markets two crossovers, the CX-7 and the larger CX-9.
Mazda markets two crossovers, the CX-7 and the larger CX-9.

Mazda's ad blitz
CX-9's integrated ad blitz breaks the week of Feb. 12 with national broadcast and cable TV, print, outdoor and online that reaches to lifestyle and auto websites as well as search engines. The ads will tout the crossover's versatility and craftsmanship. Mazda will add the CX-9 to its weekend "Zoom Zoom Live" consumer driving events, which it is expanding from 10 cities, said Mazda Marketing Director David Klan. "These people are our advocates."

Kia, meanwhile, launches its Rondo campaign tonight with an in-theater 60-second commercial. A pair of 30-second ads break on cable and spot TV Feb. 5, complimented by outdoor, online direct mail and e-mail.

The vehicle's website at shows rainbows around the Rondo as the song "Let the Sunshine In" from the musical "Hair" plays in the background. The site defines Rondoism as "a whole new way to look at driving ... and instill the ultimate feeling of happy driverness." Other definitions on the site, such as "Giddyupidness" and "huge cabinocity," are extended to ads in other mediums. Mr. Beavis said the song and rainbows will be extended to all executions, with the music acting as an "earn worm" that sticks in your head.
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