Saturday, January 6, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, January 6, 2001

Automakers reinventing station wagons

Associated Press

DETROIT - It’s not as if the station wagons that ruled in the 1960s are suddenly coming back in style, like scooters, Beetles and other forms of Baby Boomer transportation.

But many of the vehicles to be shown off at this year’s North American International Auto Show have a profile somewhat related to the wood-paneled cruisers of years past.

Already, such "crossovers" - combinations of cars and sport utility vehicles, including some station wagons - are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. market. Automakers are hoping the growth will continue despite the industry slowdown.

Automakers "believe there are customers making compromises with the existing vehicles that will be attracted to crossovers," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research. "Also, if a competitor does it and you don’t, you’re likely to lose customers."

General Motors Corp. will show off its Pontiac Vibe crossover that it unveiled in Los Angeles earlier this week. Toyota will show off the Matrix, a concept car based on the same mechanical pieces as the Vibe; both will eventually spawn versions built at the GM-Toyota plant in California.

Toyota’s Lexus division will show off a "sport wagon" version of the IS 300 sedan. Honda will show off its Model X concept SUV, while Nissan’s Infiniti division takes the wraps off another concept crossover.

And the automakers will also promote the crossover vehicles going into production this year, such as the Buick Rendezvous and Toyota Highlander.

While the definition of what makes a vehicle a crossover is a little blurry, by most measures the market for such vehicles has been booming. Crossover sales last year jumped 78 percent to 541,300 vehicles, according to Ward’s Automotive Reports, behind such hot sellers as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Lexus RX 300.

The group makes up only a small fraction of the 16 million cars and light trucks sold annually in the United States. But such vehicles will account for about 15 percent of new models being introduced from now to 2004, up from zero just a few years ago, according to research by Merrill Lynch.

Industry experts say crossovers appeal to a variety of buyers, from SUV owners who want something smaller and more maneuverable without losing too much space, to car buyers who’d prefer all-wheel-drive, but can’t afford a large truck or SUV.

"The popularity of these multipurpose vehicles is across all age groups," said W. Van Bussman, DaimlerChrysler’s chief economist. "It draws from every (vehicle) segment."

Cole said the crossovers are popular with automakers for another reason - they tend to be derivatives of other models and share many parts. The PT Cruiser shares parts with the Neon; the Acura MDX is based off the Honda Odyssey minivan. Many share production lines with their related models, allowing automakers to control capacity more efficiently.

Crossovers won’t be the only models at the Detroit show. Ford will unveil the production version of its new Thunderbird, while DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler unit will show off the new Jeep Liberty SUV. Nissan will unveil another version of its Z sports car scheduled to go into production soon, as well as a concept full-size pickup. Honda’s Acura division will unveil the RS-X, a replacement for its aging Integra coupe.

The Detroit auto show has grown into one of the industry’s most important, and for the past several years has been a place for one-upmanship among the automakers. Last year, GM spent more than $50 million building a two-story display with a built-in 1,300 seat amphitheater, aiming to compete with Ford’s double-decker display across the aisle.

But this year, the boom that brought billions in profits to American automakers has ebbed. Industry sales set a new record in 2000, but stumbled in the final months, as automakers cut production, idled workers and warned that profits would not meet expectations. As a result, there are no massive new displays - just some tweaking of the old.

Media previews begin Sunday, and the show opens Jan. 13.

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