Automakers play ‘can you top this?`


Not everyone likes a warm sun beating down on them, wind in their face and a stylish car beneath them as they zip through the countryside, along a lakefront or into the city.

Not everyone would want a convertible, but enough people still do that most major automakers continue to pump out an average of about 175,000 annually.

That’s what’s known as a niche in the automotive world, but that’s OK, as long as you’re making money in the car-selling game. And automakers say they are or they wouldn’t be building convertibles.

In fact, there were years in the late ’70s and early ’80s when few did. But Chrysler led the mainstream charge back into the drop-top market with its K cars in the early 1980s. Those were followed by the popular LeBaron convertible and last November by the Sebring.

“We’ve had a leadership roll in six of the last eight years,” said Ron Hein, Chrysler’s national marketing plans manager. And he believes Sebring will quickly return Chrysler to the top spot, now occupied by Ford’s Mustang.

Through the first six months of the 1996 model year, 23,127 Sebring convertibles have been sold and the pace is increasing. March was its best month, with more than 5,000 sold. That rate should help it eclipse Mustang’s 41,000 sales of last year, although Ford says it is hoping to raise that figure to about 51,000 for this model year.

Right now the Sebring has about 29% of the convertible market, while Ford said Mustang had 23.7% of that market last year.

Hein said Sebring’s 29% market share compares with about 17.5% for its predecessor, the LeBaron.

There are several reasons for the Sebring’s early successes, he said. Looks play a big role in this trendy, fashion-conscious market, but functionality also helps Sebring.

Hein said the Sebring is being marketed as exciting, but also functional enough to make it a buyer’s primary car. For instance it carries four people comfortably, due to its cab-forward design, and has a usable 11.1-cubic-foot trunk.

Other makers are not scared of the Sebring, though. They say the market is fairly stable and that any time a new convertible debuts, it helps sales of all ragtops.

In recent years, the market hit its peak in 1991, when the Mazda Miata was new. Last year, about 165,000 convertibles were sold.

Ford said its fortunes have improved with each new rendition of the Mustang.

Sales basically have doubled every time Ford redesigned the muscular pony car.

A Ford spokesman said the car maker sold 12,000 units in 1973, and about 24,000 in 1983 after a remake and 10 years without a ragtop being offered. The car was redesigned again before the 1994 model year and quickly exceeded 40,000 in sales.

While most automakers now offer at least one convertible, Chevrolet is the only major manufacturer to offer three different convertible lines starting with the compact Cavalier, at about $17,500, and moving up to the Camaro muscle car and Corvette sports car.

Chevrolet sells 23,000 to 25,000 convertibles annually. Last year, Camaro was its top seller at about 12,000 units. So far, that trend continues this model year.

Steve Wagg, brand manager for Cavalier, said convertibles tend to sell best in warmer climates, such as California, Florida and Texas. But they sell virtually everywhere, “even Wisconsin and Michigan,” he said, laughing. Sales in the Midwest traditionally peak in June.

Fred Gallasch, assistant brand manager for Corvette, said that traditionally convertibles make up about 25% of the sports car’s sales. Corvette hit its peak in 1968 when 18,600 convertibles were sold. That dipped to 10,600 by 1987 and is about 5,500 now.

Wagg said he believes today’s convertible market is somewhat like that in the ’60s when people were looking at convertibles for enjoyment, but he said more folks also are looking for a brand and name they can trust, plus value and durability. He believes Chevrolet’s trio offer that.

Volkswagen and its luxury line, Audi, have offered convertibles for years and each make continues with one drop-top each. VW’s Cabrio, based on the Golf, is a sporty model aimed at young drivers and starts at about $20,000. Tony Fouladpour, a company spokesman, said VW sells 5,000 to 6,000 annually, and about 1,200 Audi Cabriolets. The upscale Audi is based on the Audi 90 and retails at about $36,000.

“Our feeling is that Boomers are still in the market for a reward car and there will be a long, stable market for convertibles,” Fouladpour said.

In fact, Audi already has announced a radical looking TT convertible and coupe that is expected in the United States in 1999 as a 2000 model. It will be aimed more at folks who are passionate about their driving and want fewer frills and more feel in their car, he said.

Toyota also offers one convertible model now, but will add a second this fall.

John Hanson, a company spokesman, said Toyota considers convertibles a niche and image cars for the Japanese car maker.

It offers the Celica and will add a Paseo ragtop later this year. Toyota sold nearly 3,900 Celica convertibles in 1995 out of 21,000 Celicas sold here that year.

The Celica is aimed primarily at the young, single female market and it delivers, Hanson said. About 60% of its buyers are single women in their late 20s or early 30s and about 65% to 70% are college graduates with incomes in the $50,000 to $60,000 range.

“The market is fairly strong. This is not just a flash in the pan,” Hanson said.

Paseo will be aimed at buyers with more modest incomes and Hanson said Toyota expects to sell only about 1,500 convertible models in the 1997 model year. Paseo sales in 1995 were 5,600.

“This has a lot to do with image. Image and style are big priorities to why these buyers buy these vehicles,” Hanson said.

A few other makes also offer two ragtops in their lineups. Mitsubishi recently debuted its Eclipse and 3000GT Spyders and Pontiac offers the Sunfire, a cousin to the Chevy Cavalier, and the Firebird, a cousin to Chevy’s Camaro.

BMW has three convertibles now, with the debut of its new Z3

two-seater. It retails at about $29,000 and is considered an entry-level convertible for the German luxury-car maker. It also has two higher-priced convertibles that can seat four in a pinch: The 318i and 328i coupes begin at about $32,750 and $41,400, respectively.

Other two-seat convertibles or T-tops include Honda’s del Sol, Nissan’s 300ZX (being dropped at the end of the model year) and Mazda’s Miata.

The high-end neighborhood also offers several convertibles and T-tops including the Acura NSX, starting about $80,000; the Dodge Viper, about $59,000; Jaguar XJS, about $61,500; Mercedes-Benz SL, about $78,000; Porsche 911 Cabriolet, about $73,000; and Saab’s 900 S, about $34,000.

Copyright 1996

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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