LOS ANGELES - Despite questions in some industry quarters about its staying power, the sport-utility boom still has a long way to run, a new consumer study suggests.
According to the study by AutoPacific Group Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., 51 percent of 29,000 persons who bought a 1997 vehicle last fall are considering a sport-utility for their next purchase, up from 40 percent surveyed in the 1995/6 model year.
That represents huge potential growth for a segment that accounted for 14 percent of the market last year, or 2.1 million units.
According to the study, sport-utilities are the vehicles of choice by a wide margin for every demographic group except the over-65 crowd. Even an increasing plurality of buyers aged 50 to 64, once seen as too old for the segment, said they are considering a sport-utility as their next vehicle.
The figure is nearly 75 percent for consumers under 30.
'We're not seeing faddishness in this segment. Their practicality overrides any image statement. A sport-utility is clearly an aspirational vehicle,' said AutoPacific President George Peterson.
WHY THEY LIKE 'EM
The survey shows a sharp upturn in sport-utility intenders following a slight dip last year. Sport-utility demand appears to be stealing from all other segments, but those taking the biggest dip are mid-sized cars and minivans.
What's more, respondents said they want to buy (or bought) a sport-utility not for fashion's sake or to make a statement. Rather, a sport-utility mostly makes sense for its interior packaging, perceived sportiness and 'fun to drive' characteristics, they said.
Issues such as ride comfort, visibility and ease of entry and exit are not major issues to sport-utility intenders because newer products have addressed those traditional weaknesses, the survey found.
The survey results were derived from 29,000 respondents who bought a new vehicle in September to December 1996. Respondents were not limited to one vehicle choice, meaning they could indicate an intent to make their next purchase from more than one category.
Thus, a respondent could have indicated that he or she was considering a sport-utility and another type vehicle for their next purchase.
MINIVANS TAKE A HIT
Still, the study traced a continuing decline in consideration for cars overall. Not just trendy cars like coupes and sports cars, but even the sturdy mid-sized market is shedding intenders.
'There's a strong validation for trucks and sport-utilities as car surrogates,' Peterson said. 'It appears that the mid-sized sedan segment will evolve into a few Goliaths, such as Camry, Accord, Taurus and Malibu, with everyone else left behind as a peripheral player.'
Also, minivan buying intentions are barely half what they were two years ago. Even consumers in the heart of child-rearing years have gone soft on minivans.
Given those responses, Peterson predicted a 'backlash' against minivans that will hit as hard as the decline of the station wagon in the early 1980s. In other words, while image might not significantly propel a sport-utility purchase, it may prevent a minivan purchase.
Pickups also appear to be making a comeback, after a dip last year.
Peterson said the pickup's appeal is much more product-related, noting that the spikes have followed the introduction of the new Dodge Ram and Ford F-150 pickups.