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U.S. Car Makers Debut 3 Models at Auto Show

Launch: The vehicles are the domestics' hopes for regaining some of the market lost to imports.

January 04, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The domestic Big Three auto makers launched an offensive of sorts Thursday at the Los Angeles International Auto Show, introducing a trio of production vehicles that executives hope will help regain some of the market share that has steadily been slipping away to the import brands.

Some analysts wondered whether the showing--which will be bolstered by new products at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week--was a case of too little, too late.

Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln unit, which has slipped from first place to sixth among luxury car sellers in the U.S. in recent years, led the charge with the all-new 2003 Navigator sport-utility. It is a re-engineered version of the company's high-volume luxury SUV that features a new interior, new suspension and loads of options including power retractable running boards and power folding third-row seats that disappear into the floor to make a flat cargo area.

General Motors Corp., which has begun showing new life in the hotly contested and continually growing light-truck market, took the covers off the production version of its Hummer H2, a slightly downsized and greatly down-priced version of the gigantic Hummer SUV derived for the military's Humvee personnel carrier.

And Chrysler Group, which has lost the most ground in the domestic slide, unwrapped a sleek two-seat coupe, called the Crossfire, that will use an extensive collection of Mercedes-Benz parts as the two companies' corporate parent--DaimlerChrysler--finally begins the platform-sharing programs it once insisted would never happen.

But the import brands, from Asia and Europe, aren't sleeping. They are matching--or topping--the domestics in new vehicle introductions for 2003 and 2004.

Among the most interesting debuts in Los Angeles was Honda Motor Co.'s Model X, a box-like vehicle with a flat-floored interior and removable seating. Honda calls it a dorm room on wheels. It will be aimed at the 18- to 25-year-old group and priced below $20,000.

"I just didn't see anything at the Los Angeles show that would help the domestics surpass the Europeans and Asians," said Dean Benjamin, president of Autosource Inc., an El Segundo-based auto industry consulting firm.

Of the three new production vehicles shown Thursday, he said, only the Lincoln Navigator is a high-volume model. "And Lincoln still needs a true flagship sedan," Benjamin said.

One analyst with a more optimistic outlook, J.D. Power & Associates' product research director Brian Walters, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by vehicles such as the Crossfire and Navigator and believes they show "that we will be seeing some real competitive product from the domestics."

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