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CHEVROLET SHIFTS FOCUS TO PRICES IN BID TO RECOVER FROM SALES SLUMP

Chevrolet, once the mightiest of General Motors Corp.'s five car divisions, is emphasizing prices as it tried to recover from a double-digit sales slump.

Chevrolet unveiled the division's lone new model for 1993 this week - a redesigned Geo Prizm - and talked hopefully about Chevy's near-term future.Absent a dramatically changed lineup, Chevy is playing up its price leadership in the entry level price market, including the new Prizm. Its list price of $9,995 is lower than the 1992 model despite being bigger with a more powerful engine and a driver's side air bag.

Prizm, built on the same line as the Toyota Corolla at GM's joint venture with Japan's largest automaker in California, costs about $3,000 less than Corolla. Both cars moved up to the compact from subcompact class this year.

"You didn't hear me say this, and I know a little bit about the other guy's car, but we've heard it said that the '93 Prizm is a baby Camry with all the style, elegance and features you expect from the top-of-the-line compacts on the markets today," Chevrolet general manager Jim Perkins said.

Television ads for Chevrolet's carryover Cavalier and Lumina models are built around actress Janine Turner, who plays pilot Maggie O'Connell in TV's satirical drama "Northern Exposure."

Hawking price is an unusual tactic for Chevrolet, which historically has focused on product and left the cost to its dealers to advertise.

But with 1992 car sales off 13.4 percent, Chevy needed something to cover the gap until its new Camaro debuts this winter. It will continue moving away from sales to daily rental companies in 1993, reducing from a third to a quarter that segment's contribution to its business.

"As we move out of the daily rental business, we anticipate a 33.2 percent drop in fleet deliveries," Perkins said. "That means we're going to need to pick up a good chunk of that business that we're forfeiting on the retail side."

With GM shrinking as a corporation in response to huge financial losses and declining market share, there has been speculation some of Chevy's offerings might be scrapped.

Often mentioned is the hulking rear-wheel drive Caprice. Sales are off 21.7 percent this year, though it's a frequent choice of police and taxi fleets. Executives have said Caprice is safe through 1995 but make no commitments beyond.

Chevy quietly redesigned the Caprice for 1993, opening the wheel wells, widening the body side moldings and rear axle. The car's new looks should end Caprice's comparison to an upside down bathtub, as some auto enthusiast magazines had described it.

A redesigned Lumina with a Monte Carlo sport edition and a new S-pickup are due next fall. Chevy has moved up by seven months a redesign of its Blazer sport utility truck. The Blazer's current sales are up 15.4 percent over a year ago but trail the rival Ford Explorer and Chrysler Grand Cherokee.

Perkins said trucks, which have led the mild sales recovery in the domestic auto industry this year, are no fluke. Industrywide truck sales are up about 11 percent; Chevy's are up 5.4 percent.

"The truck phenomenon is for real, especially vans and sport utilities," Perkins said. "I just hope the truck business doesn't get confused the way the car business did a few years ago."

He referred to the lethargy of the Big Three as GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. responded slowly to the onslaught of Japanese cars years ago.

GM's response to the Japanese - creation of its Saturn small car subsidiary - directly hurt Chevy's sales in the low end of the market. Perkins said 14.4 percent of cars traded in on Saturns are Chevrolets and 9 percent of Saturn buyers list Chevrolet as a second choice.

Perkins also announced Wednesday that the high-power Corvette ZR1 sports car will be limited to 380 vehicles a year in 1993-95.