SUVs thrive despite bad rap

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Continuing news reports vilify sport utility vehicles for their safety records, ads attack their fuel consumption and vandals burn or spray paint them in California and Texas. Yet 40% of U.S. households have one in their garage and SUVs accounted for nearly half of all vehicle sales through August.

"The SUV jihad over the past few years hasn't really dampened overall demand," said George Peterson, president of consultancy AutoPacific. His research shows that more than 40% of consumers say they are considering buying an SUV for their next vehicle, the highest of any segment. Of the 5.9 million vehicles sold in the U.S. through August, 2.9 million were SUVs, or 49.3% of the market, up 2.4 percentage points from the same period last year, according to Automotive News' Data Center.


AutoPacific projects annual SUV sales will jump to "well over" 4 million units by the later part of the decade, and the number of nameplates will rise from 50 today to more than 80 by 2008. That total includes so-called crossovers, or car-based SUVs and sport wagons that look like SUVs.

The two newest are Cadillac's SRX and Nissan's Pathfinder Armada. Cadillac's estimated $40 million launch for the SRX breaks tonight on prime-time broadcast TV networks while Nissan North America's estimated $25 million effort for the Armada begins on TV Oct. 8. The brand is expected to receive $50 million in support next year.

Cadillac's midsize luxury SRX will get two 30-second spots from Publicis Groupe's Chemistri, Troy, Mich., a mix of magazine single-page ads and spreads in more than 30 lifestyle titles, national newspaper ads, outdoor in 13 key markets and online ads on some 10 sites.

The General Motors Corp. brand is also taking a two-week spin with TiVo. Starting Oct. 2, viewers can click on TiVo's main menu to see the SUV's TV spots, learn more about the SRX in a 12-minute video or order a mailed product brochure, said Greg Myrick, account supervisor at Chemistri.

The SRX, moreover, will be integrated into Cadillac's Super Bowl effort, part of the marketer's three-year deal with the National Football League, said Bill Walman, advertising manager. He declined to offer details or spending.

`vital market'

But Mark LaNeve, Cadillac's general manager, told Advertising Age earlier this year the SUV will get the bulk of the brand's fourth quarter ad spending. Cadillac spent $58 million in the fourth quarter of 2002 and $98.9 million in the first half of 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

The Pathfinder Armada is Nissan's first full-size SUV, and a literal brand extension of the automaker's smaller, midsize Pathfinder. Omnicom Group's TBWA Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., handles.

"We are playing up [Armada's] capability side and we've got to show the size, power and comfort," said Mitch Davis, marketing manager at Nissan. Mr. Davis said that while "the full-size SUV segment has definitely gotten its share of bad press in the last year," it's "still a vital market."

Industry observers have wondered aloud for years when the SUV craze would subside. But while sales of small, entry-level SUVs have softened, the luxury side is seeing "big gains," according to Bob Schnorbus, a director at consultant J.D. Power & Associates. Sales in the small SUV category slipped to 242,564 units through August vs. 283,367 units a year ago, according to Automotive News.

"SUVs are not a fad, nor is this eco-terrorism the beginning of the SUV's downfall," said Dan Gorrell, VP at consultant Strategic Vision, noting that 40% of U.S. households currently have an SUV.

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