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'05 models — tons of them — hit dealerships

DETROIT — Consumers might find it a little harder to pick out a 2005 car or truck as they browse the dealerships this year — there are so many models to choose from.

The Big Three domestic automakers have turned out a wide selection as they try to beat increasingly tough foreign competition and replace aging nameplates like the Buick Century and Cadillac Seville. Meanwhile, there are more contenders in the growing market for gas-electric hybrids, including models from Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

The days of walking into a dealership and choosing from a handful of cars and pickups have gone the way of eight-track players.

"This significant growth in new-model launches underscores how intensely competitive the industry has become," Merrill Lynch automotive analyst John Casesa said in a recent report.

Despite the variety, it's likely that automakers' fortunes will turn on a handful of vehicles. Already, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group has shown what one uniquely styled new car can do for business. The Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C, introduced in April, has attracted former owners of brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus and helped Chrysler grow its share of the U.S. market this year — something larger rivals General Motors Corp. and Ford have been unable to do.

GM, Ford and others hope to create a similar buzz with dozens of new or next-generation vehicles already in showrooms or beginning to arrive this month for the traditional start of the new-model year.

Some of these new vehicles, especially SUVs and pickups, might suffer from a case of poor timing, coming out as gasoline prices still hover around $2 a gallon in many places. The choices include a new sport utility truck from GM's Hummer division, the H2 SUT.

Conversely, new hybrids including two SUVs, the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV and Toyota Highlander, and a version of the Honda Accord sedan could have more appeal.

For now, much of the attention is on GM and Ford, the nation's two largest automakers, as they try to recapture buyers who, more and more, are choosing foreign models over domestic brands.

In particular, GM and Ford hope to make big impressions with several new or redesigned cars — the iconic Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette among them — after focusing on higher-profit trucks and sport utility vehicles in recent years.

At GM, new entries include the compact Chevrolet Cobalt, the Buick LaCrosse premium sedan and the Pontiac G6 performance sedan. At the high end, the all-new Cadillac STS, which replaces the Seville, is a final component of GM's estimated $4 billion retooling of Cadillac in the past few years.

Analysts say the Cobalt is particularly important because it replaces the high-volume Chevy Cavalier and, with its new styling, could give No. 1 GM a real competitor against the likes of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in the small-car category. The popular Civic is scheduled to get a new look for 2006, the Corolla for 2008.

No. 2 Ford is banking on a slew of new products to stem its declining market share, and observers say the Ford Five-Hundred flagship sedan and Freestyle crossover vehicle have the most potential. The company could sorely use a hit similar to last year's redesigned Ford F-150 pickup, whose sales have risen every month since its introduction in September 2003.

The Five-Hundred is a roomy sedan that features all-wheel drive, the Freestyle a car-based utility with three rows of seating. Ford hopes the two vehicles will again make it a player in the mid-size-car market and attract buyers who now largely overlook its aged Taurus sedan.

"The domestics can patch the leak somewhat, but in the greater scheme of things they're going to have to regain the trust of the American consumer," said Dan Gorrell, automotive partner at the marketing research firm Strategic Vision in San Diego. "New product is the way to do that, but it's going to be difficult."

While the Big Three build more cars, foreign brands — and the Asians in particular — continue to expand their truck and SUV portfolios.

Redesigned offerings for 2005 include the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Pathfinder. Hyundai Motor Co. will begin selling a small sport utility vehicle next month called the Tucson to compete with popular models from Toyota and Honda. The Tucson will be smaller than Hyundai's other SUV, the Santa Fe.

At dealers of European brands, shoppers will find a redesigned Porsche 911 sports car and a fresh-looking Audi A6 sedan.

Merrill Lynch's Casesa said he expects more of the same in terms of additional new models for at least the next few years. He expects an average of 54 new and revamped model launches between 2005-2008, 54 percent more than the average number of models launched between 1987-2004.

Casesa said GM and Ford will likely feel increasing pressure to invest more in new products, though he acknowledges the difficulty of such costly outlays given rising interest rates, higher material costs and other factors.

"We're not suggesting it's easy to plow more cash into product," he said. "But given the superior profitability of Japan's Big Three, not to mention Hyundai, we think increased reinvestment will be unavoidable. The happy ending, of course, would be higher returns in the long run."