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Extras abound on new models

Carmakers continue to use 'differentiators' such as hybrid engines and more cabin space to entice buyers and distinguish their vehicles from the pack.

June 11, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

The 2004 Malibu Maxx mid-size sedan out early next year features rear seats that move forward or backward by 7 inches, so you're treated to limo-like room in the back seat of the Chevrolet hatchback.

Of course, that prompts the question, why?

"Because parity doesn't [take] sales from the competition," said Gary Cowger, president of General Motors' North American automotive operations.

"You need a 'differentiator,' " Cowger said, something you offer that the competition doesn't, in order to get people to shop your cars and not theirs.

"That's why the movable seats in the Maxx," he said.

The new industry buzzword is "differentiators," and GM is very concerned about them. It has seen the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord muscle their way past it to dominance in the mid-size car market, a segment that accounts for more than 4 million sales annually.

So what are differentiators?

This fall Chevy will offer in its 2004 Malibu a factory-installed remote engine starter, so you can start the car while sitting in the comfort of your home on frigid or blazing mornings. Neither Camry nor Accord will offer that.

Toyota will offer a new, 6-inches-longer Prius this fall with cabin room similar to that of a mid-size Camry, but the rear seats won't budge and, regardless of outside temperatures, you must get in and turn the key.

When you do, gas-electric power and an expected 30-miles-per-gallon-plus rating mean you'll take the heat off your fuel budget while others cool their heels topping off their gas tanks. If, or more likely when, gas prices dash back up, hybrid power is an attractive differentiator.

Chevy obviously thinks so, because Ed Schoener, Malibu marketing director, said for 2005 Malibu will offer a displacement-on-demand V-6, which disables three cylinders at cruising speed to conserve fuel. And in 2007, Malibu will add a gas-electric hybrid.

Another differentiator is torque. Chevy will unveil high-performance, supercharged versions of the mid-size Impala sedan and Monte Carlo coupe this fall, which will be designated as SS models.

"Where performance comes in is by attracting younger buyers impressed by it," Jim Campbell, Monte Carlo and Impala marketing director, said. "While the Japanese have 240-horsepower V-6 engines too, we will offer more torque for more powerful off-the-line punch."

The Monte Carlo and Impala SS V-6 will be rated at 240 horsepower, like the Camry and Accord V-6s, but will deliver 280 pound-feet of torque. That's 60 pound-feet more than Camry and 68 more than Accord.

Another differentiator is all-wheel drive. At Chevy, it's not a matter of if, but when. Malibu and Maxx can offer front- and all-wheel drive, Schoener said. Both are built on GM's new FWD Epsilon platform, which also is shared by the Saab 9-3 and next-generation Pontiac Grand Am for 2005.

Neither Camry nor Accord have immediate plans to add all-wheel drive, but Ford does in its 2005 Five Hundred and Mercury Montego mid-size sedans, its 2006 Ford Futura and the unnamed Mercury companion that will replace the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable.

As automakers continue to develop differentiators, consumers will be the beneficiaries.

"In psychology there's the study of the hierarchy of needs, which basically states that without air, you don't have to worry about anything else, but once you have air, you worry about food, water, shelter and clothes," said David E. Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"We're now in an era of needs in cars in which details are important -- like whether a rear seat moves 7 inches and how much torque a car has to pull you off the line," he said. "That's where the game is being played."

Cole said differentiators aren't new. And automakers trying to outdo each other benefit consumers. The cup holder, for example, led to juice-box and water-bottle holders; two rows of seats led to three rows in sport utility vehicles; and a slide-open power door on minivans led to dual power sliders and power lift gates that stop and retract when striking an object.

In coming up with differentiators, Cole said, one of the most important factors is speed, or "how fast you can bring a new feature to market to temporarily capture the segment, whether it's hybrid engines, all-wheel drive or telematics."

Stay tuned, because this is one race in which the buyers will be the winners.

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