CHICAGO - Even as the auto industry struggles to reduce its dizzying array of vehicle variations and platforms, there still seems to be room for more products.
That was the message from the Chicago Auto Show last week. Several automakers showed how they plan to pursue new areas of the market with niche vehicles that would have been unlikely a decade ago.
American Honda Motor Co. Inc. unveiled a performance Civic Si coupe, with a 160-hp dual-overhead-cam engine. Honda forecasts 15,000 sales.
American Isuzu Motors Inc. presented its VehiCross sport-utility. The new model complements the brand's Amigo and Rodeo sport-utilities. Plans call for just 2,400 to 3,000 VehiCross sales a year.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. presented a low-volume convertible version of its Camry Solara coupe.
And Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc. announced the availability of 10 Designo special-edition sports car packages in the United States. Designo gives customers such color choices as red and black, electric-green and gray, or silver and brown. Expected annual sales: 2,500 orders.
'This is for that one customer in Des Moines who wants to wear a different color suit to the party,' explained Joe Eberhardt, Mercedes vice president of marketing. 'This is our way of reaching out to that customer.'
At Mazda North American Operations, reaching out translates to a limited-edition 10th-anniversary Miata. Each of the 7,500 units will be numbered in sequence on the outside.
Cadillac, meanwhile, unveiled a Steinmetz Catera concept, outfitted to appeal to younger and more affluent buyers than the younger Catera crowd Cadillac already seeks.
Yet the question for auto show visitors is not so much 'Why are they doing it?' but 'How?' For the past decade, automakers have tried to reel in their spiraling product proliferations and the development and marketing costs that go with them.
'There are clearly some industry trends at odds with each other,' observed Joe Caddell, general product manager for DaimlerChrysler's small-car business. 'There's a lot of confusion in the industry. That's why we have just one Neon.'
The redesigned 2000 Neon, introduced last month in Los Angeles, is the embodiment of variation-trimming. In 1994, the car was manufactured with a staggering 700,000 possible variations. By last year, those possibilities had been trimmed to 50,000. And the new model has 2,800 possible variations.
At American Isuzu, Senior Vice President Robert Reilly credits a little-used manufacturing technology with making the low-volume VehiCross feasible: concrete ceramic dies. They do not stand up as long as traditional metal dies, but for the small numbers Isuzu needs, production durability is less of an issue.
Said Reilly: 'Had we made the vehicle with traditional metal dies, it wouldn't have been affordable.'