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Soup of the Day for the Car Enthusiast: the Sport-Compact

April 05, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those big-wheeled, bright-colored Hondas, Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Mustangs that seem to be everywhere these days represent an explosive trend in the automotive world--sport-compact tuning--that is fast approaching the $1-billion-a-year mark, a new study shows.

From 1997 to 1999, retail sales in the once-small segment soared from $295 million to $756 million, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., the automotive aftermarket trade group.

FOR THE RECORD - Dings & Scratches
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 12, 2000 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Misstated credits--Although sponsored by the Irvine wax and polish maker, the Ford Focus drag-racing car pictured in last week's Highway 1 was not built by Meguiar's Inc. The builder was Nuformz Inc., an Ontario-based racing chassis and performance equipment firm headed by car builder and driver Shaun Carlson. The photo credit on that same picture was in error. The Meguiar's Focus was taken by John Naderi of Overboost.com.

The numbers were rolled out by SEMA executives Friday at the start of the three-day International Auto Salon at the Fairplex in Pomona, and attendance at the event underscored the growth trend. More than 8,500 people attended the show, up from 6,400 in 1998, its inaugural year. They were treated to exhibits from 182 manufacturers, up from 120 at the first show.

"A few years ago, we were referring to this dynamic segment as the hot rodders of the future," said Charles Blum, president of Diamond Bar-based SEMA. "Well, the future has arrived."

Spending on performance and appearance accessories, boosted by an expanding economy and booming job market that have increased disposable income for the mostly young, largely male audience for compact performance cars, makes it the hottest segment of the $21-billion-a-year aftermarket industry, Blum said.

Surveys in the last year of nearly 5,000 sport-compact enthusiasts by the trade group and by Sport Tuner magazine, said SEMA research director Jim Spoonhower, show that although 82% are male, the number of female participants--car owners, not passengers--is climbing. In its 1998 report, SEMA said males accounted for 85% of the sport-compact crowd.

Where the stereotypical enthusiast in the segment is of Asian descent, the reality is that whites make up about 42% of the audiences at compact-performance car shows around the country, SEMA researcher Eric Berry said. Those who consider themselves of Asian or Pacific Island origin account for 28.5%, he said.

Latinos make up 16% of the audience, African Americans about 8% and, as evidenced by recent car show attendance surveys, both are growing segments.

"There is no ethnic imbalance here," Berry said. "That happens more with the age ranges." Almost 75% of enthusiasts are between 16 and 25, the surveys found.

Because younger drivers abound in the sport-compact category, most are customizing used vehicles rather than new ones. But for most of the popular makes, the range of parts and equipment available in the aftermarket is so broad that a reasonably adept enthusiast can transform a secondhand car into one that looks, handles and performs better than a new stock model.

And while foreign marques still prevail--Honda, Acura, Toyota and Nissan make the most popular models in the category--Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge have joined the top 10. The key "import fighters" from the American Big 3 include Ford Motor Co.'s Focus, Mustang and Mercury Cougar; DaimlerChrysler's Dodge Neon; and General Motors Corp.'s Chevy Camaro and Cavalier models.

Highlights of this year's salon were a supercharged 2001 model Chrysler PT Cruiser on automotive steroids, dubbed the PT Bruiser, and a pair of high-performance Focus hatchbacks, including a drag-racing version, built by Irvine-based wax and polish maker Meguiar's Inc. and outfitted with a two-liter, 850-horsepower, four-cylinder Ford engine.

Ford's small-car racing unit showed off a turbocharged Focus "Tooner" hatchback with oversize wheels and high-performance tires, special springs and shock absorbers, racing clutch, custom suspension bushings, racing seats and a host of other improvements. A company representative estimated that the equipment would add about $7,000 to the base model's $12,000 price tag.

Such spending is not unusual in the sport-compact world, Spoonhower said. Almost 50% of those surveyed said they planned to spend $1,000 to $3,000 to fix up their vehicles, and 11% said they would shell out in excess of $5,000.

Times staff writer John O'Dell

can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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