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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 12, 1997

I always look forward to the passing of six weeks because it gives me a chance to comment on what has happened in the auto world during that time. Some pretty interesting things have occurred during our last meeting and I'm anxious to pass on these vehicular tidbits for your information and erudition. They also cast you in the role of an expert when you pontificate on the business around the water cooler or during your coffee break. But to avoid looking like a showoff, you'll have to cleverly turn the conversation from football to automobiles:

ISUZU SUES CONSUMERS UNION - Isuzu took some pretty hard hits (Including a 54 percent drop in sales) when Consumers Union (CU) magazine published a road test that labeled the Isuzu Trooper sports/ utility vehicle as easy to roll over. A CU in-house video taping of the test revealed the driver said that he couldn't roll the Trooper and further stated that "... it just slides." In a later statement he said that he had to "manhandle" the big machine to make it tip over. The National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) tossed out a request by the magazine for a recall on the Trooper and this prompted the Isuzu suit. It's going after CU and R. David Pittle, CU's tech director, for defamation and Pittle's response to the whole thing was that the NHTSA and the federal government had "... cast a blind eye to the serious problem of rollover safety."

HONDA PLANS WORLD CAR - American, European and Asian car buyers are very different from each other and look for different things in a family sedan. Americans want size and comfort, Europeans want performance and "tight" handling while Asians (and in particular, the Japanese) want compactness and lots of style. The prototype Honda Accord redesigned for '94 didn't please any of the markets, but emergency surgery in the form of a new nose and tail saved the day for the company and since then has grown Accord sales up to the point where by 1996, it had nearly toppled the mighty Ford Taurus as best-seller. Now Honda is planning a single platform (chassis system) that can be specialized to fit buyers all over the world without having to produce an entirely different car for each market. The project will allow Honda to shrink or expand the overlying car without having to start from Square One to suit different regional tastes. The makeover cost Honda $600 million to implement, but that's pocket change compared to the $2.8 billion Ford spent on the Taurus.

WOMEN BUY MOST SATURNS - Saturn is the Cinderella of the car business. It came on line only seven years ago and made a hit as a "new" kind of company: no high pressure sales, service with a smile and a "clubby" attitude with its buyers after the sale is made. And it worked - maybe too well. Women account for 63 percent of the Saturn sales and the age of the average buyer is 42 - not old but definitely not the youth market. Saturn's ad campaign for '98 will be aimed at buyers 10 to 15 years younger than that average and do some additional targeting towards males in that group. The company execs are somewhat nervous about the situation since Saturn sales have dropped 14 percent, which is enough to warrant a slowdown of 1000 cars per week coming off the assembly line. Maybe its proposed "big" car (actually a revamped German Opal) will eventually prime the pump.

CATERA STILL FOR OLDSTERS - The top end of the General Motors lineup is having aging problems too. The mid-sized Cadillac Catera V6 (actually a revamped German Opal, too) was conceived as a generation-buster for the company to bring economically emerging baby-boomers into the Cadillac fold. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out quite that way - at least in the initial go-around. The "Baby Cad" has only been out since last November, so the traditional Cadillac buyers were first into the showroom to check them out and drive them away. An early survey claimed that half the Catera buyers were just old enough to collect Social Security but the company disputes this and says that the average buyer's age is now 58 - still not a kid by any means. For '98, Cadillac will train its guns on the forty-somethings who want an entry-level luxury car. Unfortunately for Cadillac, these buyers lean towards upscale imports.

LAFORZA COMES BACK - Almost everybody likes to root for the underdog and that includes me. The LaForza is a Ford-powered Italian-made sport/utility vehicle that's imported here sans running gear to Monster Motorsports, a Southern California high class hot rod shop whose primary source of income is the stuffing of Ford V8 engines into small Mazda sports cars. Monster Motorsports literally rescued the LaForza name a couple of years ago when it bought a gaggle of new, but shopworn vehicles, then refurbished and renovated them and offered them through selected new car dealerships. By 1999, Monster Motorsports plans to cram the LaForza engine room full of 6.8 liter Ford V10 power, which should get the attention of upscale SUV shoppers. Price-wise, the LaForza is somewhere in the neighborhood of the British Range Rover (a classy neighborhood, indeed) - but with an Italian accent.

Check in with us in another six weeks and we'll offer up another half-dozen or so morsels for your consumption. But be ready for excitement, because something is always happening in the auto world.