DETROIT — NOT so long ago, a Chevy was as much a part of the American dream as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. But today, fewer and fewer people are interested in seeing the USA in their Chevrolet. And 1990 could prove to be the critical year if the automaker hopes to stop its erosion in the United States new-car market. Consider that:
In 1973, Chevy sold 2.5 million cars, nearly 1 of every 3 new cars sold in this country. Last year, one of the industry's best ever, sales fell to 1.5 million passenger cars, about 1 of every 7 sold in the US.
Chevy's truck market share has also declined, from 31.5 percent to 25.8 percent over the past five years.
Chevrolet's rival, Ford Motor Company, has surged to the No. 1 sales position in both cars and trucks.
The number of Chevrolet dealers around the country has declined by about 2,000 since the 1960s. The number of exclusive Chevy dealers is on the decline. ``Quality was one of the main reasons'' Chevrolet lost so much market share, says auto analyst Michael Luckey. ``The Japanese came along with a lot better offerings at a lower price.''
For Chevy, this was an especially big problem, since many of the critical younger buyer group - teens to young families - switched to imports.
To win that important buyer group back, Chevy recently created Geo, a ``division within a division.'' Unveiled a year ago, Geo is designed as a marketing arm for a range of ``captive imports,'' passenger cars and light trucks produced by Chevy's Japanese affiliates, including Isuzu, which produces the new Geo Storm, and Suzuki, which builds the Geo Metro mini-compact and the Tracker, a sport-utility vehicle. So far, however, Geo sales have been running at barely half their anticipated levels, and have actually declined since 1988. The current marketing strategy is to distinguish the subdivision from Chevrolet, because ``there's a whole lot of people who don't walk into a Chevrolet dealership,'' says Michael Erdma, Chevy's marketing director.
Among the new products for 1990 is the Corvette ZR-1, a super-high-performance version of the division's flagship sports car. With a top speed in excess of 170 miles an hour and a price tag of $58,995, the ZR-1 will not only be the fastest production car ever built by General Motors Corporation, but also its most expensive.
The ZR-1 is meant to freshen the division's image, rather than generate significant sales numbers. Total volume is expected to be about 3,500 units in 1990.
The big-volume products new for 1990 are three models collectively known as Lumina: a coupe, a sedan, and a minivan. The sedan has actually been on sale for several months and has gotten at best a lukewarm reception. But the Lumina APV, a new, plastic-bodied mini-van, is being roundly praised for its sleek, aerodynamic design.
J. C. ``Jim'' Perkins, Chevrolet's general manager, estimates total Chevy sales in 1989 will reach 2.9 million units, including 1.35 million trucks. For 1990, he forecasts the figure will grow to 2.95 million, despite the anticipated decline in the overall new car market.
But in the long term, ``the way you win back [a significantly larger] share is by coming out with products that are distinctive, have an edge over everyone else, and bring back buyers from the competition, like Ford and Honda. And at the moment I just don't see that happening,'' says auto analyst David Healy, of Drexel Burnham Lambert.