Gm Keeps Minivan Advantage

January 19, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Ford Motor Co.'s introduction of a flashy new competitor in the growing U.S. minivan market is expected to be more of a benefit than a threat to the General Motors Corp. Astro and Safari vans made in Baltimore.

TC truck." Light trucks, which include minivans, account for about 45 percent of the automotive market.

A truck is what you get in the Astro and Safari. "That van we make in Baltimore is a truck," said William H. Noack, a spokesman for GM in Washington. "It's truly a truck, and people seem to like that."

Barbara I. Mansfield, a spokeswoman for Ford, said the Windstar is more car-like than the Astro or Safari, and, as a result, the vehicles appeal to different customers.

Ford is scheduled to phase out production of its Aerostar van this summer as part of a move to boost production of its popular Explorer sports utility vehicle.

Customer appeal

Curtis Swan and his wife, Jane, had spent a recent day looking over all the vans on display at the auto show and were about to leave when they stopped at the Chevrolet display to check out one more model.

"I like it," Mr. Swan said, as he settled into the bucket seat of a fully equipped Astro luxury touring van, priced at $22,855, and grabbed the steering wheel. "I like the steering wheel," said the Westminster resident. "I didn't like the steering wheel on the Volkswagen. It made you feel like you were driving a truck."

Mrs. Swan was more impressed with what she saw at the opposite end of the eight-passenger van. "Everybody who looks at vans looks to see how much room they have in the back behind the seats," she said. "This one has a lot more room than the others we saw."

"We go to a lot of auctions," said Mr. Swan, "and we need something with a lot of cargo space."

Another feature that captured Mrs. Swan's attention was the Dutch-type rear doors. In this arrangement, the top half of the door lifts up, the bottom section splits in the middle and each half opens in an opposite direction. "It's a lot easier to open than some of the other vans,"she said.

John Dunning of Annapolis was eyeing a GMC Safari as a replacement for his Honda sedan so that he would have a vehicle large enough to take the entire family out when his stepdaughter visits from Cincinnati with her two children. In the past, he said, he has had to rent a car for such occasions.

Sitting in the front passenger seat of a Safari XT, priced at $19,898, Mr. Dunning said, "I like this one. It has everything that the Chevrolet [Astro] has, but it's cheaper."

According to sales figures published by Automotive News, a trade publication, Astro sales totaled 125,567 last year, up 8.4 percent. Its nearly identical sister vehicle, the Safari, realized an 18.5 percent jump in sales to end the year at 46,054.

Last year, GM captured 22.2 percent of the growing U.S. minivan market that topped 1 million vehicles for the first time. Chrysler, the industry leader, had 44.8 percent of the market and Ford 23.1 percent. Imports accounted for the remaining 9.9 percent.

But GM's share of the minivan market, including the Chevrolet Lumina, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette, declined from 24.9 percent in 1992. Ford's share of the market, including the Mercury Villager, a twin of the Nissan Quest that was introduced late in 1992, rose from 18.6 percent in 1992.

Chrysler had 48.1 percent of the market in 1992 and foreign vans held 8.5 percent.

To keep pace with orders, employees at the GM factory on Broening Highway have been working daily overtime and have agreed to workmore Saturdays than their contract calls for, said Rodney A. Trump, president of Local 239, which represents the approximately 3,400 hourly workers at the plant.

'You can't beat it'

In explanation of the Baltimore van's strong consumer appeal, Mr. Trump said: "My God, it will do everything. It has the capacity to carry eight people and their luggage. Plus, you can pull a trailer.

"It has the chassis of a truck, the power of a truck, the drive train of a truck, but it rides like a car. You can't beat it."

The popularity of the Astro and Safari has endured despite more than their fair share of bad publicity in recent years. The Astro has scored low ratings in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's crash tests the past two years.

Consumer Reports said in its 1994 car buyer's guide that the Astro and Safari "suffer from clumsy handling and uncomfortable ride, and sub-par reliability."

"Three strikes and you're out," it concluded in not recommending the vehicle.

Mr. Cole discounted the results of the government's crash test, saying that, according to insurance industry data, the Astro and Safari fare much better in real accidents and results are more comparable to those of other similar vehicles.

Mr. Cole said the GM engineers also will be addressing the Astro's and the Safari's safety features and other shortcomings in a minor face lift scheduled for the 1995 model year and major make-over slated for the 1997 model year.

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