by Bob Hagin
August 20, 2001
The selling of cars and trucks in America is a cut-and-thrust world where companies that get behind can fall by the wayside. They all strive to stay up with or even get ahead of the competition and to do this, they must continually introduce new and unique products and techniques. These are some that you can look for in the near future:
PT CRUISER MEETS GIDGET - It's tough in the automotive market and yesterday's stars can become bit players almost overnight. Chrysler's PT Cruiser is a prime example of this phenomena. When it first appeared a year or so ago, they were going for as much as $10,000 over sticker price. They were so hot that even the federal government couldn't buy a pair of them for crash testing. But like the VW New Beetle, the bloom is fading from the rose and the cute little cross-over sedan/wagon/SUV is readily available at any Chrysler retailer. But the PT Cruiser has become the darling of the automotive aftermarket customizing world. Modified and gussied-up versions flooded the display area of the latest SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas, a fact that did not escape unnoticed by DaimlerChrysler, the parent of Chrysler. As a result, Chrysler will supply its franchised dealers with a "special" version of the PT Cruiser. The "Woodie" utilizes a faux-wood applique on the doors and body to capitalize on the mystique of those vintage Ford wooden-bodied station wagons that were dear to the hearts of golden-haired Southern California surfers in the '60's. If Chrysler's still-hot Prowler roadster is an indicator, the PT Cruiser Woodie is a sure thing. Baby Boomers are invited to buy one and hang ten.
MASERATI ROADSTER ROLLS IN - American fans of Italian automobiles had their appetites whetted by last year's announcement that the venerated Maserati trident logo will be returning to these shores after an absence of more than a decade. The fortunes of the second-level exotic car maker have undergone many trials and tribulations since the four Maserati brothers entered the business in 1914. This fact makes the marque a member of that exclusive group of auto builders that can trace their ongoing history back to the days before the Kaiser War. Among other "challenges," it has been under the protection of Ferrari for some time, which in turn has been guided by the Italian giant, Fiat. But as we've noted before, the whole shebang now enjoys financial and managerial input from our own General Motors and The General wants Maserati returned to our shores. Since open cars have regained favor in the U.S., the first and foremost repatriated Maser will be a big, hot roadster that bears more than a slight resemblance to the company's Mistral Spiders of bygone days. And with a new 4.2-liter, 400-horse V8 engine, the new lightweight Spider should be able to keep up with American traffic. It's coming early next year and well-heeled aficionados better get in line pretty quick.
BUICK RAGTOP REDUX - One of my earliest and fondest automotive memories is cruising around Oakland in the late '40's sitting in the back seat of Bill Abomarod's '47 Buick Super convertible. Bill was a friend of my big brother Don and sometimes they would take me along as a treat in top-down weather. But aside from a couple of years when its limited-production Reatta sportster was produced with a rag-top, open Buicks disappeared in the mid-'70's. But now a new Buick drophead is in the works, and it's not simply a Regal sedan with its top chopped off and welded-up rear doors. The upcoming Bengal is a short wheelbase machine with a body design that is a direct descendent of the concept car of the same name that was introduced at auto shows earlier this year. It's sleek and supercharged and should do a lot towards changing the stodgy, old-person's car image that Buick has acquired. Until the recent arrival of its Rendezvous sport/utility vehicle, Buick dealers had only a quartet of four-door sedans to attract younger-than-60 buyers. Hopefully, vehicles like the Bengal and other high-profile cars will stem the current slide in Buick sales.
MITSUBISHI JOINS SPORTS WAGON MOVEMENT - Coincidental to the fact that Consumers Union recently branded its newest Montero Limited "not acceptable," Mitsubishi has arranged to introduce its entry into the fast growing sedan-based cute-ute SUV niche. Its aim is to challenge the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Called the Airteck in the Japanese market, the little Mitsubishi is front-drive with all-wheel drive optional and it carries a prerequisite 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. A perceived tendency to tip over when attempting to avoid unexpected encounters with cows, horses and deer that wander into the roadway is what put the Consumers Union onus on the Montero Limited.
TOYOTA TRIES TO FIND A NEW GROOVE - Although the Focus is really just another small economy car, through clever advertising and promotions, Ford has managed to capture an unusually high percentage of the coveted 18-to-25 year-old entry-level market. In urban settings, it's become "in" to drive one of the myriad Focus models. This fact has been noted by the dignified marketing folks at Toyota and they've come up with a co-branding program with Roxy, a maker of trendy surfer- oriented women's wear. The Roxy Echo carries swoopy body graphics, a surfer's roof rack and waterproof upholstery. The car is a tentative step in an almost desperate attempt to develop a youthful image for Toyota, a company whose customer base is rapidly graying at the temples. Needless to say, most of the Roxy Echo promotions and public appearances will be in coastal areas where surfing is almost a way of line rather than in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Keeping up with the neighbors is an American credo. In the auto business, it's a life-or-death necessity.