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The Market Chameleons

Basic Small Car messages changes with the times

The sellers of basic small cars (hereafter called BSCs) have over time shifted their marketing emphasis to reflect ever-changing U.S. market conditions. Messages are changed in much the manner of chameleons changing color to match new backgrounds. Due to World War II and the Korean conflict of the early 1950s, there was a scarcity of new cars in America. The British Fords and Hillmans plus French Renault BSCs imported in those years carried a simple marketing message — our small cars are available, buy them.

Through the mid-1950s, the European small-sporty cars remained viable but their BSCs faltered. Then, the “anything but full size” buyers found the Beetle. By the early 1960s, both the Americans and Japanese began to seriously attack the BSC market. The chameleon marketing messages became a blur of anti-traditionalism, fuel costs, youth, low prices and earth friendliness. The messages came in two colors — American and Japanese.

The 1973 oil embargo shifted the marketing emphasis to fuel economy. The marketing chameleons wore their voices hoarse trumpeting fuel economy numbers to the point of diminishing other messages. BSC peddlers returned to the standard marketing messages in the ‘80s. A lesser crude-oil problem cropped up in 1990, triggered by the First Gulf War and the ads again began pushing fuel economy, yet less stridently.

Today, BSCs will do 2.2 million a year, outsold only by midsize cars and large pickups. The are, however, as are most car segments, down a tad from a year ago. Currently, the great majority of BSC sales are middle-road basic transportation but with an active minor movement including square-cube boxes, alternate engines, up-tweaked station wagons and 300 horsepower “pocket rockets”.

BSCs are a splintered segment with 14 recognizable manufacturers selling 26 brands containing countless permutations. As shown in the table, General Motors, fielding Cavalier, Saturn, Vibe, Sunfire and Aveo, leads the volume count. Cavalier is a respectable third in BSC brand-sales ranking and will be replaced in 2004 by the Cobalt. The General is in a reasonably strong position, but the pricing of the Cobalt will be an indication of their seriousness in maintaining their volumes.

Toyota, number two on the list, sells the Corolla, Matrix, Echo, Prius and Scion. All but the Echo are relatively new and growing, pushing sales up 29 percent this year. Toyota has loaded their guns and are out hunting. Corolla may or may not be the number one BSC brand, depending on data source. Some consider Matrix a separate brand, some do not. Honda stands in the third position, their Civic is a recently redone stand-alone with an aura of being sedately and sublimely Japanese. Sales are off five percent. Again, depending on the source, Civic is number one, or two, in the segment.

Ford, fourth in the lineup, recently dropped Escort sedans and is in the process of closing out Escort coupes, thus losing 50,000 units a year and leaving Focus as a stand-alone for 2004. There are new, greener and gruntier engines for 2004 and considerable new sheet metal is promised for 2005. Sales this year down 15 percent, 10 of those lost point attributed to the cancelled Escorts.

Hyundai has worked their way up to fifth place but is down 10 percent in the BSC market as they push upstream. Dodge’s Neon, DCX’s sole BSC unit, now a bit long in the tooth, is down six percent. Dodge is attempting to excite buyers with horsepower. Kia is struggling and trying to move upstream where the money resides; down 16 percent. Nissan fields only the aging Sentra and experiences a 13 percent shortfall; there is no Nissan magic in the BSC market. The Beetle does well and the Golf is holding on for a combined 12 percent up tick. Mitsubishi is struggling. Mini is growing as a darling of the be-different set and Suzuki is busy planning to move up into the midsize market selling Korean vehicles.

The data indicates that corporations at the top of the list have a strong, generic central vehicle (Cavalier and Corolla) aided by several specialty lines. The second tier are basically one-vehicle outfits (Civic and Focus), with Hyundai, the strongest of the others, owning two viable lines, Accent and Elantra. The product message is clear — the more nets you have in the water, the more fish you catch.

The BSCs main selling point is affordability. Considering that service industry workers and second-car owners are expanding and the young Generation Y people are moving into the market, BSCs should remain a viable and important market segment aided by something- for-everyone marketing pitches. But, if by some odd chance a serious political misadventure occurs and the Middle East becomes regionally unsettled, BSCs will again be prime time merchandise marketed almost exclusively through stringent mpg numbers — on that odd chance, how are your BSC capacity and mpg numbers?

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Tue. July 23rd, 2024

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