DETROIT AUTO SHOW -- 1996

Prowler signals innovation era

Competition spurs innovation

Originally Published: Jan. 8, 1996

DETROIT -- From the Plymouth Prowler hot rod to the Mercedes sport-utility, automakers are rolling the dice.

Today's hypercompetitive market is forcing automakers to shatter the old boundaries of their product lines and brand identities.

At a time of flat sales and global competition, automakers must run faster just to hold their place. And the new price of admission is constant fresh product, as the year's introductory auto shows emphasized last week.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit was filled with examples:

•Chrysler Corp. showed the 1997 Plymouth Prowler roadster, expecting to give its value division a shot of image adrenaline -- much as the Viper revved up Dodge's image.

•Mercedes' AAVision is unlike anything Mercedes has built before. The bulging, muscular, concept sport-utility is a mildly disguised version of the vehicle Mercedes begins building in Alabama next year. It has touches of both car and truck. Mike Jackson, executive vice president of Mercedes-Benz North America Inc., said the market for sport-utilities is not saturated -- ''not if you look at the premium end of this market.''

•Mercury touted the Mountaineer, a feature-laden version of the Ford Explorer. It gives dealers an entry in the burgeoning luxury sport-utility segment--at the risk of siphoning off Explorer sales from Ford dealers.

•Cadillac rolled out the Catera, a reworked Opel Omega, as its entry-level model. Cadillac's decision to go outside its own engineering group for the new model evokes memories of its last entry-level car, the ill-fated compact J-car Cimarron.

•Lexus and Acura showed luxury sport-utilities--rebadged and reworked vehicles trying to shoulder their way into a crowded and growing field.

•Acura pulled the tarp off the CL coupe--the first made-in-America car for the luxury division of American Honda Motor Co.

•General Motors unwrapped the GM EV1, an electric car it plans to sell through Saturn dealers in California and Arizona this fall. The price tag: $35,000, although government incentives will bring it down for buyers.

•BMW introduced the Z3 roadster.

While some European luxury players such as BMW and Saab insisted they wouldn't be distracted from offering luxury cars, rather than trucks, many automakers and divisions are bending their old identities as they follow their customers out of cars.

But missing from the blitz of bold new products was the usual brave talk of big market share gains they would achieve. Most auto marketers acknowledge that new product in new segments is now needed simply to hold market share.

Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes and a handful of other importers spiced up their presentations with futuristic concept vehicles. GM concentrated on four mass-market production cars. While contemporary and fresh, the four GM sedans certainly aren't an exercise in risky styling a la Taurus. But GM's method of developing and marketing the vehicles -brand management - is a stretch for the No. 1 automaker. The four mid-sized cars are the Buick Century, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Aurora-inspired Oldsmobile Intrigue.

Two production cars shown in Detroit, the EV1 and the Plymouth Prowler, are designed partly as image halos and production labs.

The Prowler will be a test bed for Chrysler Corp. to gain experience in volume production of vehicles with aluminum frames and body panels. Only 3,000 Prowlers will be built the first year, and up to 5,000 annually in following years. The car will sell for about $35,000.

The EV1 will help GM learn to develop, produce and market electric vehicles. The company said it is the first of a portfolio of electric and hybrid vehicles.

GM jumped into the electric market even though California officials are watering down requirements that major automakers market electric vehicles by 1998. GM said it would have a clearer field to sell the EV1 without the mandate.

The EV1 stretches many technical and marketing boundaries. But in 1996, stretching boundaries has become the norm.

You can reach Charles Child at (Unknown address)

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