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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 23, 2010

Subaru speeding up in stalled auto market


By Jeff Green and Alan Ohnsman
Bloomberg News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Subaru showed off its 2011 Impreza at the New York International Auto Show in April. While other carmakers have been struggling, the Japanese firm logged record results in 2009.

JIN LEE | Bloomberg New Service

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While much of the U.S. auto business is just beginning to emerge from retrenchment mode, sales at Subaru of Glendale are climbing every month and owner Sam Ershadi is even considering expanding his California dealership.

"Our customers were not affected by the recession," he said. "They have a better financial situation."

By courting financially solid buyers with a taste for the quirky, Subaru of America sped through a dismal 2009, logging record sales and market share along the way, executives at the company said.

Last year Subaru became the 11th most popular U.S. auto brand, up from No. 19 a year earlier, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Record sales in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, Fla., helped make Subaru the fastest-growing mass-market car brand in the U.S. for the past two years. It's the growth leader again so far in 2010 up 41 percent through April, according to Autodata Corp. Subaru's unit sales now exceed those of such better-known brands as BMW, Lexus, Mazda, Volkswagen and Volvo, the data show.

Subaru, the auto unit of Tokyo's Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., has long been popular with a core of professorial drivers in the Northeast and outdoor enthusiasts in the Northwest. The carmaker has been moving beyond the regions that are its stronghold, Subaru sales results show.

"People have been finding out about them outside of New England," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Global Insight. "They are quietly successful, and their buyers appreciate that. They haven't abandoned their core."

Subaru's secret may be that it understands the customers who drive its cars, and it has gotten smarter and more aggressive about reaching out to new ones who would feel at home as part of that clan, she said.

The company, based in Cherry Hill, N.J., has the type of customer base that's particularly attractive to carmakers, said Alexander Edwards, president of market researcher Strategic Vision. The average household income of a Subaru owner is $88,000, the same as Honda Motor. Plus, Subaru buyers are three years younger than the industry average and a quarter more likely to have a college degree, he said.

They are a thrifty lot, traditionally buying less car than they can afford, Edwards said. About 36 percent pay cash. Subaru has played to that frugal bent by cutting about $1,200 from the $26,342 average price of its cars in 2007, according to data compiled by Edmunds.com.

Those cuts haven't killed profit margins because the lower prices allowed Subaru to reduce sales incentives and rebates on its cars substantially, said Thomas Doll, chief operating officer. Currently, the company gives about $1,333 per vehicle in incentives. That's almost half the $2,310 in incentives To-yota gives its buyers.

Much of the automaker's marketing focuses on cementing its connection to customers. Subaru's research shows them to be an eco-friendly bunch who value the freedom to go where they want, when they want, Doll said.

That meshes with Subaru's all-four-wheel-drive lineup, showcased by TV ads that star one of its cars caked with road grit and being applauded by spectators on a suburban Main Street. The tagline: love.

"In their marketing, they've been focusing on what creates love between the owner and the automobile," Edwards said. "The 'share the love' campaign has been effective. They play up fun, the adventure you can have in a Subaru."

Last year, the company sold a record 216,652 cars in the U.S.

It's upping production 40 percent this year at its Indiana plant, which also builds cars for Toyota Motor Corp., Fuji's largest shareholder. The plant is located in an official wildlife preserve with no waste sent to landfills, in keeping with Subaru's support for causes such as the American Canoe Association and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

Such brand-building moves help Subaru win new customers on the cheap. It spends about $154 million a year on U.S. advertising $100 million less than the Volkswagen AG's namesake brand

One thing won't change: Subaru's emphasis on the relatively upscale buyer who values freedom and frugality, Mahoney said.

Subaru managers said they estimate that's a market of up to 60 million buyers far larger than the niches of academics and tree-huggers it has long been associated with, Edwards said.

"They are basically adding people who are Subaru buyers in their hearts, but don't know it," said Edwards.

With 2.4 million Subarus now on the road, that leaves 57.6 million customers to go.