Hot new style for stodgy old Detroit

US automakers bank on 'halo cars' to lure more customers into the showroom.

After all the talk of war, rising oil prices, and falling sales, it turns out automakers just want you to have fun. Take that brawny SUV up some unpaved mountain road. Or hop into a racy coupe and head down the highway. Even if you just sit in it - parked in the car lot - it still looks as if you're doing 100 miles an hour.

Which is the point.

While Detroit is losing sales of its everyday cars to foreign, especially Japanese, competition, it is trying to refocus the game on vehicles that turn heads and lure customers into the showroom. It's not a new trick. But in an era of declining market share, automakers in the United States are banking on it more than ever.

"Cars are clothing; they're fashion accessories," says Kevin Wilson, executive editor of AutoWeek magazine. And yesterday's fashions always become commodities. So automakers, like fashion designers, are always looking for the next big statement, he adds. "They're all trying to push their way out of [becoming commodities], because that's where you have to start stuffing money in the glove box."

If there was one big statement at this year's diverse North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it would have to be sleek and sexy. Four automakers debuted almost identical racy coupes - all of them silver. These concept cars are:

• Jaguar's Advanced Lightweight Coupe Concept, which previews the upcoming revision of the brand's iconic, sleek XK8 sports coupe. Ford Motor Co. owns Jaguar.

• The Chrysler Firepower, a 500-horsepower sports car built on the chassis of a Dodge Viper but with more elegant looks and a fancier interior.

• The Shelby Cobra GR-1, a loose replica of the racing Shelby Cobra coupes of the 1960s except that the body is polished aluminum. It was so bright, several observers at the show complained they couldn't take a picture of it. "It looks liquid," said another.

• Toyota's Lexus LF-A super coupe, designed to run with the likes of Jaguar and Porsche.

If put into production, these vehicles may one day be "halo" vehicles, designed to stand out on the road, get buyers to stand up, take notice, and feel good about the brands that make them, says Wes Brown, an analyst with automotive marketing firm Iceology in Los Angeles.

A halo car "makes a strong enough statement" to bring buyers into the showroom and has a positive emotional effect on buyers, says Mr. Brown. And it doesn't hurt that the car is unattainably expensive or impossibly impractical for most buyers.

After a year in which America's two largest automakers lost market share and the average cash rebates on cars increased 2 percent - to an average of $2,512 per car and $4,179 for large SUVs - manufacturers need all the help they can get.

Everyday cars, like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and the new Ford 500 sedan, are crucial to a company's success, but they often sell for little profit or even lose money. One way to lure more consumers to look at these sedans (and perk up prices) is to park them next to a halo car.

But halo cars no longer have to be impractical, or even expensive. The Honda Element, for example, started out as a show car. Volkswagen's New Beetle and the Chrysler 300 sedan also have halo qualities and are still easy on the wallet.

Standing out

American companies, especially, have turned to manufacturing halo cars with greater regularity in an effort to reclaim buyers who have defected to imports.

Over the past four years, Ford has produced the exotic Ford GT, the new retro-styled Mustang, and the reincarnation of the classic Thunderbird - all halo cars. Chrysler built the 300, Crossfire, PT Cruiser, and the Dodge Viper. General Motors is getting into the game with the Pontiac Solstice, another two-seat convertible halo car scheduled to go into production in the fall.

"If these companies are going to win back buyers of Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys, who are perfectly happy with them and never have any trouble, they're really going to have to do something that stands out," Brown says.

Part of the story, as always, is demographic. Baby boomers, with their nests newly empty, make up one of the largest segments of new-car buyers, says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, an automotive research firm in Bandon, Ore.

Older buyers, especially, have more disposable income than in past generations, he says. And they often own more than one car. These are folks who own a Mustang, along with a Jeep and a Corvette, he says. These drivers don't need four-door sedans.

Buying for want, not need

As a whole, American attitudes toward car buying have changed over the past 25 years. In 1980, 80 percent of new-car buyers were forced to buy new cars when their old ones died, says Mr. Spinella. By 1990, that figure had dropped to 60 percent; today, only 18 percent of buyers purchase new cars out of necessity. The rest buy new cars to get the coolest, most exciting, or innovative models on the market - or because of financial deals they just can't pass up.

Many buyers who bought new cars because of financial deals since 2001 are now returning to dealerships because they don't like their cars, says Ron Pinelli, president of Autodata in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. He calls it "spent-up demand," rather than "pent-up demand."

In the end, automakers are trying to add some pizazz to their lineups, because "it's getting harder and harder to entice people to come into the showroom, because they expect zero-percent financing and big rebates," he says.

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