Saturn adds accessories to woo youth market

Just like the Japanese brands it was designed to compete against, Saturn Corp. has been signing licensing agreements with aftermarket accessory manufacturers in a bid to win young buyers.

Saturn wants to give buyers the tools to make its cars flashier in hopes of building interest at a time when the automaker is short on flashy products.

"This is where a lot of the energy in the industry is coming from right now," said Steve Girard, total vehicle planner for Saturn. "Especially in the small-car market, customers are looking for individual statement and expression. We want to make sure we've got enough accessories out there for them to do what they want."

Saturn has signed between 20 and 30 accessory companies to supply add-on parts and engine-tuning components for Saturn's small cars. In addition, its new Vue sport-utility, which will appear in showrooms this month, already has 30 to 40 accessory items available to broaden its appeal.

Battling the Japanese

The push could bolster Saturn's position against its primary competition, Japanese brand cars, adds Jeff Campana, vice president for the industry consulting firm Allison-Fisher International in Los Angeles. Several Japanese nameplates have staked out the accessory trade to boost customer appeal for their lower-end vehicles.

"Out here in California, you really see people accessorizing their subcompacts," Campana said. "It's mostly Nissan Sentras and Honda Civics and the Mitsubishi Lancer. For Saturn, this is a way to be more competitive against the Japanese brands."

Vehicle accessorizing is a growing market. Last year, retail accessory sales reached $1.2 billion, up 59 percent from $760 million in 1999, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association. The aftermarket trade group forecasts that the volume will rise another 30 percent this year.

The components allow buyers to change a car's engine tuning with alternative air intakes, to swap factory wheels for chrome spoked wheels, to add rear spoilers or to adopt racier tires.

Most appealing to a carmaker such as Saturn as it awaits new products is that the accessory market keeps it alive among younger customers. SEMA estimates that more than two-thirds of the accessory trade is carried on by people 16 to 25 years old.

Plans for whole lineup

Girard says the effort is not confined to Saturn's small S-series cars, though. Accessories for the Saturn Vue include interior bike racks, splash guards, roof racks, trailer hitches and wet suit-like seat covers.

This year, Saturn unveiled what it called its "expression series," a strategy that will use accessory packages to create small-volume versions of its models. One of them, the DVD L series, will appear this fall as an L-series sedan or wagon equipped with a DVD player, special wheels and paint colors.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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