SUBARU OUTBACK TAPS `CROCODILE DUNDEE'

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Here come the pseudo sport-utes.

With Australian actor Paul Hogan starring in a $20 million to $22 million campaign, Subaru of America today introduces the Outback, a vehicle positioned as the first sport-utility wagon.

The hybrid represents an effort to capitalize on surging consumer demand for sport-utility vehicles. Subaru touts the Outback as a product that combines rough-terrain driving capability with the ride and comfort of a passenger car.

The Outback is essentially an all-wheel-drive Legacy station wagon with sport-utility features such as higher ground clearance and styling cues like large fog lamps.

Subaru isn't the only automaker eyeing a niche opportunity. In two years, Mercedes-Benz of North America will introduce an "all-activities vehicle," a $30,000 product being described as a combination of a luxury car and a sport-utility.

Other companies said to be considering hybrids are Sweden's Saab Automobile, the U.K.'s Jaguar Cars and Japan's Honda Motor Corp. Except for Honda, which is marketing an Isuzu-built product as the Honda Passport, these car marketers don't currently have sport-utilities in their lineups.

The marketers need something to compete with the industry's hottest growth segment during the 1990s. Through August of this year, sport-utilities accounted for 11.3% of the total U.S. new-vehicle market vs. 9.6% in the same period in 1994, according to market researcher J.D. Power & Associates, Agoura Hills, Calif.

Subaru hopes to capitalize by being the first player in the niche. At prices ranging from $21,995 to $23,395, the Outback is several thousand dollars less expensive than top-of-line sport-utilities.

The auto marketer and agency Temerlin & McClain, Irving, Texas, are counting on Mr. Hogan, star of "Crocodile Dundee" and other films, to help create an aura of toughness for the Outback.

"A lot of SUV shoppers are buying the rugged, go-anywhere image," said Mary Treisbach, Subaru's director of marketing. "Paul Hogan not only gives us a nice play on the Outback name but also a chance to help rugged-ize the Outback image."

Mr. Hogan and a female companion are seen in three commercials driving an Outback through rugged terrain to outrun two villains who give chase in another firm's sport-utility vehicle. Mr. Hogan uses the chase to favorably compare the Outback's stability, handling, braking and fuel economy to popular sport-utilities.

TV spots will run on ABC college football, 22 cable networks and spot TV. The print schedule includes 60 consumer, news, life-style, business and professional magazines.

Subaru has a one-year contract with Mr. Hogan, with an option for two more years. In addition to TV and magazine ads, Mr. Hogan will be used in dealer materials and in a direct marketing campaign from DCI Marketing, Milwaukee.

The direct mail effort, going to 1.6 million Subaru owners and prospects, will include a sweepstakes promotion. Grand prize is a trip to Australia and a year's use of an Outback. Recipients will also get a $750 voucher toward the purchase of an Outback.

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