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The sport-utility vehicle boom is a lot more than a fad, if attendees at three recent auto shows are an indication.

A hefty 23% of the 14,000 consumers who were surveyed during 1994 shows in Detroit, New York and Toronto answered that their next automobile purchase would be a sport-utility vehicle. U.S. sales of sport-utilities reached almost 1.4 million units in 1993, accounting for 9.9% of all car and light truck sales, according to Automotive News.

"This definitely shows a potential for the segment to explode over the next few years," said Doug Dohring, chairman-ceo of the Dohring Co., a Glendale, Calif.-based market research consultancy that conducted the surveys.

The Dohring surveys showed 50% of respondents intended to buy a passenger car, 13.3% a full-size van or minivan, 12.2% a pickup truck and 1.5% responded "other."

Mr. Dohring called the survey results a "red flag" indicating growing consumer interest in sport-utilities. "Automakers may not be able to fill the demand," he said.

Already, there are signs that consumers' interest in sport-utilities caught automakers off-guard.

"None of us expected sport-utilities to be 20% of the truck business," said Ross Roberts, VP-general manager of Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division. Sport-utilities made up 25.7% of light truck sales in 1993.

Ford is adding capacity at its St. Louis assembly plant to build 100,000 Explorers a year starting in 1995. First introduced in 1990, the Explorer topped the sport-utility segment and was the No. 4 vehicle in the U.S. last year, at 302,201 units.

Ford reportedly is planning to also bring out a larger, four-door model of its full-size Bronco sport-utility in 1997, to challenge the hot-selling Chevrolet/GMC Suburban from General Motors Corp.

The sport-utility segment has grown steadily with the introduction of models that combine carlike features and comforts with the cargo capacity and the four-wheel-drive capabilities of a truck. Sport-utilities made up 7.3% of all U.S. auto sales in 1991 and 8.8% in 1992 before reaching the 9.9% mark last year.

The vehicles have made inroads into the sales of traditional luxury sedans, forcing marketers like Mercedes-Benz of North America and BMW of North America to examine ways to enter the segment.

Mercedes-Benz plans a '97 introduction of a $30,000 sport-utility vehicle that will be built at a new plant in Vance, Ala. BMW AG bought controlling interest of Britain's Rover Group Holdings in February, and is expected to eventually market BMW branded versions of Rover's Land Rover and Range Rover sport-utilities.

Mr. Dohring said the widespread interest shows there's also growth potential for lower-price entries. Currently, prices for nearly all sport-utilities start at more than $15,000 and ascend sharply from there.

The surveys were conducted with Dohring's TrendTrak system, using individual keypad units placed at several locations at each show. According to auto marketers, high percentages of auto show attendees go on to purchase a vehicle within a year of the show.

The surveys have a 1.4 point margin of error.

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