Lots of sports cars about to debut to a market that may be receptive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sports cars -- sleek, powerful and sexy -- they can stir the imagination and excite the hormones, but historically they haven't been big sellers.

Shoppers, particularly the middle-age baby boomers who are reaching their prime buying-power years, will cast a longing eye at the Dodge Viper, Corvette or Miata in the showroom but in the vast majority of cases they will drive home a new four-door sedan, sport utility vehicle or a minivan.

Despite this, auto manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, will be introducing a flurry of new models in coming months.

They include a redesigned Corvette, the first all-new Porsche in 19 years, a supercharged Mercedes-Benz roadster, the Plymouth Prowler roadster and a new version of Acura's pricey speed machine, the NSX.

With the demographics of the nation changing -- we are becoming an older society -- can the market support so many new sports cars and roadsters? What do manufacturers hope to accomplish with their new models?

Frederick Schwing

President of Schwing Motor Co.

I am quite confident the market can support the new wave of sports cars.

There has been a near void in the sports car market in the United States over the past 10 years. There was the Corvette and the Mazda Miata, but not much more.

There was a time when there were a lot more sports cars available. The British sports car industry has dried up. There are no more MGs, MG-B or MG Midgets or Triumphs.

There were others: the Lotus, the Spitfire, the Austin-Healy, Fiat and Alfa-Romeo and Sprite. Most of them disappeared because they couldn't meet U.S. auto emission standards.

We sell BMW and we didn't get our first Z3, BMW's new roadster, until June. They are all sold. They have been hot. I'm selling all I can get. There is still a couple of months' waiting list for the car.

Edward Lapham

Executive editor of Automotive News

I think the market can support them, but I won't be surprised if there is some shake-out sometime down the road.

Roadsters are toys. There is no question about it. Just as sport utility vehicles are toys. Fifteen to 20 years ago, everybody looked at the Jeep and said that's a toy and it has expanded into something much bigger.

I don't think the roadsters will be big sellers, but there will be a market for them with the baby boomers. They represent an alternative for somebody who needs an extra vehicle.

When you have been driving a minivan or a sport utility vehicle, it is nice to get into something that is a little smaller and more personal, leave the kids and dog behind and enjoy it.

With sports cars, you are talking about smaller volumes. Many of these units will have production runs of between 5,000 and 10,000 vehicles. They may not be big sellers, but they will appeal to a certain segment of the markets.

A lot of the new activity is related to the success of the Mazda Miata, which rekindled the flame that a lot of people had for

roadsters and sports cars.

As to why the manufacturers are doing this, they create excitement in the showroom. They create brand awareness and this is very important now that there is so much competition from so many lines of cars.

In Dodge's case, first with the Viper convertible and now with the coupe, they clearly wanted to keep the showroom excitement rolling.

David Barnas

Spokesman for Chrysler Corp.

We think it can. Chrysler has the Dodge Viper and our new roadster, the Plymouth Prowler, is coming this spring. There is nothing out there like these cars. They fill a niche in the market.

But the measure of the success of these vehicles goes well beyond their limited production and sales.

The Viper was really the revitalization of the Dodge brand and was the calling card for Chrysler's financial comeback in the early 1990s.

We expect the Prowler to do the same for Plymouth.

We are not looking at a high level of sales. Our projections for Plymouth Prowler is 3,000 for the first year.

Prowler will be Plymouth's calling card. It will put Plymouth on the map. It will be the flagship vehicle of the Plymouth brand. It will stimulate excitement and increase showroom activity.

People will come in to see it even if they can't afford it or it's not a practical vehicle for them.

That excitement will rub off on the Plymouth Neon, the Grand Voyager and the other products we have in the Plymouth brand stable.

Prowler has already drawn attention to Plymouth. We have received over 100,000 inquiries about the Prowler and we hasn't even started producing it yet. It has raised the visibility of Plymouth.

Since the Viper was introduced in 1992, Dodge sales have been at all-time highs. Not all of that is attributable to Viper, but it began the process.

We think the Prowler will do for Plymouth what Viper did for Dodge.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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