It's been 14 years since a Chrysler Corp. product was named Motor Trend's Car of the Year. So when the magazine tapped the Chrysler Cirrus for 1995 honors, the automaker wasted no time adapting its marketing plans to leverage the award.

The timing couldn't be better for Chrysler, coming on the heels of an Oct. 31 ad rollout that helped produce solid first-month sales. As a family sedan straddling the compact and mid-sized segments, the Cirrus is facing off against some of the industry's toughest competition, such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Motor Co.'s new Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique line.

'The people who buy those kinds of cars are savvy customers who want to be seen as making smart buys,' said Steve Torok, general manager of Chrysler-Plymouth brands. He said the award adds credibility to the Cirrus ad campaign from Bozell Worldwide of Southfield, Mich.

'The public views (ad claims) as subject to verification until someone else other than Chrysler says it,' Torok said.

While automotive awards have proliferated, the Motor Trend honor remains the best known. One reason, say auto marketers involved in previous years, is that Petersen Publishing Co. works closely with winners to generate publicity and to keep the Motor name prominent in any ads.

The Plymouth Reliant K-car was the last Chrysler auto to cop the award, though the Dodge Ram pickup took Truck of the Year honors for 1994.

To mark Cirrus' award, Bozell produced a spread ad that broke in the Dec. 2 issue of USA Today and is also running in newsweeklies, along with a new 30-second TV spot that kicked off Dec. 10.

Previously produced TV commercials are being tagged with news of the award.

The campaign's theme line remains 'Introducing the Chrysler Cirrus. It's not just a step above, it's the new plateau.'

Chrysler is spending an estimated $40 million to introduce the Cirrus to its target audience of upscale, well-educated baby boomers. It will follow up with a projected $50 million marketing effort to roll out the Dodge Stratus, a Cirrus sister car set to be unveiled early next year.

The Cirrus posted sales of 4,499 units last month, the best first month for any Chrysler-brand product launched in the 1990s, Torok said. But Japanese brands still did well in November: Accord was up 3.3 percent, and Camry rose 4.6 percent.

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