The crowded small sport-utility segment is getting even more crowded.
Coming this year are the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute and Hyundai Santa Fe. Also on its way is a redesigned Toyota RAV4.
Despite the competition, Margaret Brooks, brand manager for the Chevrolet Tracker, believes her sport-utility will hold its own - and even increase sales 25 percent to 50,000 units in 2000.
Brooks' confidence in the Tracker is based on three factors:
The 2001 Tracker finally is getting an optional 2.5-liter V-6 engine, giving it 155 hp.
The 2001 Tracker has two new trim packages, the uplevel LT and the ZR2 sport package.
General Motors expects annual small sport-utility sales in the United States to increase to 500,000 units in 2000, from about 440,000 in 1999. In three to four years, annual small sport-utility sales could hit 1 million units, Brooks said.
New competition such as the Escape will simply draw more buyers away from small cars to small sport-utilities. 'It's going to build overall awareness of the segment,' she said.
Dean Benjamin, president of AutoSource, an automotive consulting company in El Segundo, Calif., agrees. 'I think having these other choices makes (the segment) more attractive to buyers,' he said.
Of course, whether the segment reaches 1 million depends on how you define it. GM's list of small sport-utilities includes the Tracker, Suzuki Grand Vitara (sister vehicle to the Tracker), Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Jeep Wrangler, Subaru Forester and Kia Sportage.
Others, such as the Automotive News Data Center, exclude the Forester, which is more station wagon than sport-utility, and add the larger Nissan Xterra and higher-priced Lexus RX 300.
Brooks even suggests the upcoming Chrysler PT Cruiser, a versatile and roomy small vehicle, will compete indirectly in the segment.
Benjamin sees segments within the segment. There are, for example, the traditional body-on-frame sport-utilities, such as the Tracker, Xterra and Sportage, that appeal to a primarily male audience. Then there are the car-based Escape, CR-V and Forester, which attract more young families, he said.
'There's going to be a lot of product out there,' Benjamin said. Not all of them 'will capture the heart of the buyer,' he said.
Brooks said the Tracker's redesign for the 1999 model year has been attracting a younger, more affluent customer base.
Chevrolet sold 40,024 Trackers in 1999, up 97 percent from 1998.
Chevrolet will attempt to increase that base in the 2001 model year with the new engine, which it is getting from Suzuki and will come standard with the LT and ZR2 trims. Installation of the larger engine starts in August, when the 2001 models debut. Chevrolet also is giving those trims a slightly different exterior look, and increasing the availability of the four-door Tracker as opposed to the two-door convertible.
Phil Carlisle, assistant brand manager for the Tracker, said Chevrolet expects V-6-powered Trackers to represent half of Tracker sales.