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Car Gurus Wary of SUV Fuel Claims

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LOS ANGELES Automotive analysts here expressed skepticism regarding Chevrolet's new Tahoe campaign to combat falling full-size SUV sales by stressing its best-in-class fuel efficiency.

Two 30-second television spots from Interpublic Group's Campbell-Ewald of Warren, Mich., broke on New Year's Eve, according to Mike Albano, communications manager for Chevrolet in Detroit.

"The full-size sport utility customer has become more conscious of fuel prices, and we will communicate our lead in that area against Toyota [Sequoia]," Albano said. He added that even though the Tahoe ads will also tout other attributes, including the new styling, it is "an important message . . . to demonstrate Chevy as a leader in fuel economy."

Some analysts have less confidence in the ability of Chevy's message to reverse a category-wide downturn.

"Fuel economy was just a catalyst for a trend away from SUVs that was developing anyway," said Todd Turner, principal at Car Concepts, Thousand Oaks, Calif., who noted sales of full-size SUVs dropped 20 percent through November to 527,000 units.

Turner said a fuel-efficiency message opens Chevrolet to exposure because "few consumers will realize the fuel-economy gains that GM is bragging about." He said most of the miles-per-gallon improvement is on the highway side of the equation-where SUVs tend not to live.

Turner cited the backlash against GM's Hummer H2 introduction: "People were expecting 18 mpg and when they got 10 and 12, they were upset. It hurt them in the J.D. Power initial quality study."

Wes Brown, an analyst with Iceology, Westwood, Calif., said that a combination of factors has allowed the customer who thought it was cool to buy a large SUV as an alternative to minivans to downsize out of the segment "without their success being questioned."

Brown predicts that the Tahoe will do well in the first quarter in the flush of novelty, then require heavy incentives to sustain sales.

"Unfortunately, the vehicle is coming out at the wrong time," Brown said. "Unless you do something unbelievable, that's just not what people want. The market has shifted."

Chevrolet spent $20 million advertising the Tahoe through September 2005, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.