Carmakers Unveil Strategies at ’06 Auto Show

DETROIT General Motors will take a new marketing tack in 2006 and shift from touting incentive programs to an emphasis on “the best product at the best price,” said Mark LaNeve, GM’s vice president of North American sales, service and marketing, at the 2006 North American International Auto Show, which opened here on Sunday.

“We’re not going to market the deal, but our competitive MSRP advantage segment by segment. Last year the product story got lost in the corporate story,” LaNeve said.

GM in 2004 spent $2.6 billion in U.S. measured media and $2.4 billion through the first 10 months of last year, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

LaNeve said that while the marketing budget will remain flat, the dollars should work more efficiently because “the products we’re launching this year are where we are very strong.” He said the media buying would have “much better separation. We’re pulling [the GM divisions] apart in key media properties.”

At the show, GM unveiled two new hybrid SUVs—the Saturn Vue Green Line and the 2008 Chevrolet two-mode Tahoe—as well as a plan to market its ethanol engines’ energy alternatives. The Vue Green Line, expected this summer, is rated at 32 highway miles per gallon with a 2.4-liter VVT four-cylinder engine. The two-mode technology will also be offered in the GMC Yukon next year.

GM’s hybrid push will “start with the Saturn Vue,” said LaNeve. “We’ll price the premium for our hybrid version at under $2,000, so with a 20 percent fuel economy, the owners will actually get their money back. Hybrids are not a fad, but the excessive premium for hybrids is.”

LaNeve said some marketing would tout the advantages of corn-based ethanol use. GM is expecting to reach 1.5 million vehicles capable of running on that fuel this year, and LaNeve said it’s time for GM to start communicating the advantage. “Over 15,000 miles, a Tahoe using ethanol will burn 100 gallons of fuel less than a compact hybrid. And ethanol is a renewable resource that strengthens American farmers and lessens dependency on foreign oil,” he said.

Irvine, Calif.-based Mazda introduced the CX-7 crossover vehicle. Tim Blett, president of Doner in Newport Beach, Calif., said the first campaign of two or three spots in 15-, 30- and 45-second executions would emphasize the theme presented at the show, “The SUV you didn’t see coming.”

“We’ll be using more forms of media, including cinema,” said Blett. “And it will be marketed experientially. So you’ll literally see the car in unexpected places.”

“The SUV you didn’t see coming is a metaphor for Mazda itself,” said Don Romano, vice president of sales. “We’ve come from relative obscurity to prominence.”

Romano said Mazda’s target demographic is now the second youngest, behind only Toyota’s Scion, and getting younger. “Our marketing is going to be geared along those lines, with an emphasis on experiential, online and using text messaging. Our demo is not in front of the TV,” he said.

Honda’s Civic and Ridgeline swept the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards, the first time in the history of the show a single automaker won both prizes.

As if to demonstrate the size advantage of its hatchback, Honda drove five Fit subcompacts onto the same stage on Sunday night.

Larry Postaer, director of creative services at independent RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., said he expects the agency’s first work for Honda’s Fit to debut in the first quarter, well in advance of an April release. He would not disclose details.

Rated at 38 highway mpg, the 109-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder VTEC engine is expected to achieve the highest gas mileage in the category.

Dick Colliver, executive vice president of sales at American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance, Calif., praised the “impressively big smallness” of the $13,000 Fit, and stressed the elevation of the entry-level class with Sport model paddle shifters and Apple iPod Music Link as well as standard drive-by-wire throttle control, ABS, and dual-stage, dual-threshold-front, dual-front-side and side-curtain air bags.

Among the highlights of the show’s first day:

— Ford unveiled the Edge CUV, a 250-horsepower, six-speed automatic transmission vehicle with a Panoramic Vista glass roof and optional AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control for electronic reduction of slide-slip and roll. Ford also introduced a Carroll Shelby GT500 Mustang with a 475-horsepower, 5.4-liter, supercharged V-8 engine.

— Torrance-based Lexus unveiled the LS-460 luxury sedan, showing off the long-wheelbase version. Lexus said the 4.6-liter V8 produces 380 horsepower, but still achieves an average mpg rating in the mid-20s, qualifying it as a level-2 Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle. As a result of using a dual fuel-induction system, Lexus was able to “increase horsepower by a whopping 36 percent while improving fuel economy at the same time,” said Jim Press, president and COO of Lexus owner Toyota Motor Sales.

— Infiniti of Gardena, Calif., showed a futuristic concept version of the G35 Coupe. Unlike Hyundai’s Infiniti FX-inspired Talus, which the company said would probably remain out of production, the G35 will be available as early as next year, said Dennis Lim, creative director on Infiniti at Omnicom’s TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.

— DaimlerChrysler showed a revamped Dodge Challenger, along with an appearance by actress Eva Longoria, who rode onto the stage with Chrysler president and CEO Tom LaSorda.

— Hyundai of Fountain Valley, Calif., showed a revamped Santa Fe small SUV, which it hopes will compete with Toyota’s RAV4 and Highlander. Featuring a 2.7- or 3.3-liter dual-overhead cam V6 engine capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 faster than a BMW 530i, according to the automaker, Hyundai will position it as the most car for the money on the road. “Our message is ‘Refined and confident,'” said Hyundai president and CEO Bob Cosmai.