SALES of four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles have mushroomed over the last few years, making it one of the fastest-growing niches in the United States motor vehicle industry. The biggest seller is still the nameplate you're likely to think of first: Jeep. The US appetite for sport-utility vehicles is 700,000 a year - with Jeep accounting for one in three sales. Joseph Cappy, executive vice president of Chrysler's Jeep Division, believes the US market could grow to ``over 1 million'' by the mid-1990s.
The surge in sales began in the mid-1980s. Baby Boomers began trading in traditional sedans and coupes for more utilitarian alternatives even though only 10 percent of all sport-utility owners will ever drive down anything more rustic than a potholed dirt road.
Virtually every auto manufacturer is challenging Jeep for a share of this lucrative market. Buyers can choose products beginning with the $7,000 Suzuki Samurai. For $43,850, buyers can have a Laforza. It will tow tons of trailer up a steep slope while its occupants enjoy a hand-stitched Italian leather interior, top-notch sound system, and sunroof.
One of the most unusual sport-utility vehicles ever designed is the Pontiac Stinger, a hybrid of dune buggy and Jeep.
The Stinger's convertible body is made of carbon fibre, a material more commonly found in aircraft. Door inserts can be removed to further enhance the convertible feel, and they serve double duty as coolers and storage compartments. In fact, there are more than a dozen odd-shaped compartments containing everything from a camper's cookstove to a color-coordinated tennis racket.
Developed as a styling and engineering exercise, the Stinger proved so popular when displayed on the auto show circuit this year that Pontiac's parent, General Motors, is close to approving a production version, to debut in the early 1990s.
Mr. Cappy isn't worried. Jeep has just reported its seventh year of record sales in a row.
``Sure, there's going to be a lot more competition,'' he says, ``but the more competitors there are, the more [car-to-truck crossover] buyers they will bring with them.''
Then there are the overseas markets which are just beginning to discover Jeep.
Chrysler expects to have exported 25,000 Jeeps to Europe in 1989, more than half of Chrysler's total vehicle exports to that market. And Cappy believes there is room for a lot more growth once a new joint venture with Renault begins operation in the early '90s.
The two companies are currently in the process of developing an entry-level Jeep through a joint venture, dubbed ARCAD, the Association of Renault and Chrysler for Automotive Development. They will build the new Jeeps at two factories, one in the US, the other in Europe (giving Chrysler its first manufacturing presence in Europe in a decade).
Chrysler is already building Jeeps in China as part of a joint venture with the government there. Production is currently limited to 5,000 Jeeps a year, but eventually, Beijing Jeep could supply markets all over Asia.
In fact, Japan is now the fastest growing market for Jeep, sales having doubled during each of the last three years. Now, sales are still only about 500 vehicles a year, but Cappy expects the market to double and double again as the Japanese market slowly opens to foreign cars and light trucks.