IN NORTH AMERICA, car-based sport-utilities, such as the Lexus RX 300 and Subaru Legacy Outback, are in their infancy today. But most major automakers are developing vehicle hybrids that blend the most desirable attributes of cars and light trucks.
The explosion of the new vehicles, called sport wagons, will hit North America by 2002, shaking up both the conventional passenger car and light-truck markets.
The Subaru Forester, Volvo V70 XC, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V and 1999 Lexus RX 300 are early competitors in the segment.
'Most manufacturers have some sort of hybrid on their drawing boards right now,' said Bo Annvik, vice president of product planning and business development for Volvo Cars of North America Inc. 'This segment is going to increase dramatically.'
The new segment promises big profits. By using existing car platforms, assembly plants and engines, automakers reduce development costs.
'The segment has huge potential,' said Audi spokesman Joachim Cordshagen.
He said the market reaction to the Audi A6 'all-road quattro' concept, presented at the Detroit auto show in January, had been very positive. 'We will surely build it,' he said, although a final decision has not been taken. 'It fills a niche, and niches are currently the most important areas for manufacturers.'
Several European manufacturers are working on sport wagons:
Audi has shown its 'all-road quattro' concept.
BMW plans a new model for around 2000, derived from the 5 series Touring, but with a higher chassis.
VW may produce a multi-purpose vehicle with Porsche around 2000.
Volvo may add a sport wagon around 2000 to its existing V70XC.
Mercedes-Benz, which already has the M-class sport-utility, does not plan related models.
In the USA, Ford is developing a sport wagon with Mazda, code-named U204, based on the Mazda 626 platform. Ford is also building multi-activity vehicles from its Fiesta and Focus platforms.
But Peter Schmidt, director of consultancy Auto Industry Data, believes the potential for the sport wagon has been exaggerated.
'The whole thing is a joke - 90 percent do not even leave the road. It is a fashion thing, created by marketing departments,' he said. 'European manufacturers want to be part of the light truck boom in North America, because they see it as a chance to make higher profits.'
However, most industry executives and analysts agree that in North America a high-volume category is being created that cuts across a range of prices from $12,000 starter entries to $40,000 luxury vehicles.
Early sport wagon sales indicate that compact sport-utilities, such as the Ford Explorer, are especially vulnerable to the new wave of vehicles.
Subaru, which pioneered the category when it introduced the 1996 Legacy Outback 'sport-utility wagon,' says the Outback has stolen sales from conventional sport-utilities.
'Customers are viewing the role of sport-utilities negatively,' said Volvo's Annvik. 'They don't want to sit in a vehicle that can harm others in a passenger car. They want to stand for something more rational when it comes to those safety issues.'
The danger, of course, is creating a product that excites neither car nor truck owners.
Says Lincoln Merrihew, director of product advance at J.D. Power and Associates: 'If you like spaghetti sauce and I like chocolate and we mix them together, we come up with something that satisfies no one.'