The sport sport utility market is winning converts from the luxury car and minivan set.


Edward Gibbs, an advertising executive and confessed car nut, used to drive a Cadillac Allante, a $60,000 status symbol of luxury cars.

These days, you'll find him behind the wheel of a bright red Jeep Grand Cherokee, the newest entry in a burgeoning sport utility market that is winning converts from luxury cars and kid-hauling minivans. Sport utilities, once the macho, rough-and-tumble trucks drivers took on hunting and fishing trips, have gone upscale. And so has their share of the total vehicle market - to 7 percent in May from 5.4 percent at the end of 1990.Buyers are attracted to vehicles like Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer for their car-like ride, all-wheel drive and view above traffic that takes some of the fear out of cut-throat commuting.

``The young baby boomers and the early pre-boomers are buying these four-wheel-drive station wagons that don't look like station wagons because they think the minivan looks dowdy and suburban,' said Joseph Phillippi, an auto analyst with Lehman Brothers Inc. in New York.

Ford Motor Co. research showed that 55 percent of sport utility buyers come from the car market, 17 percent already owned them and 13 percent are converts from pickup trucks. Two of three drivers are men with an average age of 38 1/2 and average household income of $55,500.

Ford revolutionized the market in 1990 with its Explorer. A stylish and solid four-door in cool, outdoorsy colors with a designer option package designed by apparel retailer Eddie Bauer, it raced to the head of the sport utility class.

That dominance is threatened by recently introduced Grand Cherokee.

``It's a very charming ride for the category,' Gibbs said of his Jeep, loaded with high-end stereo, leather interior and lighted vanity mirrors, among other goodies. ``They've attempted to take it up a notch, and they've done it in a lot of ways.'

There may be enough customers for both vehicles, which comprise two-thirds of the segment's sales, plus several entries from General Motors Corp. and a raft of low-volume imports like the Mitsubishi Montero and the pricey Range Rover.

The demographic spread of sport utility buyers is as broad as the price range.

The small and medium-size market includes the Geo Tracker, especially popular with young buyers because of its $10,000 sticker price and the original Jeep Cherokee, repositioned for the lower end of the market at about $13,000.

Explorer and Grand Cherokee buyers tend to be a little older and wealthier. Grand Cherokee prices range from $19,000 to $28,000. Explorer goes for $17,000 to $26,000. Chrysler Corp. and Ford are keenly aware of each other's vehicles but plan no head-to-head advertising comparisons as Chevrolet has done against Ford's pickup truck.

``We both make a lot of money on the vehicle. We both sell a lot of volume. I'd hate to get in a war there,' said Larry Baker, general manager of Chrysler's Jeep-Eagle Division.

John Casesa, an industry analyst with Werthheim Schroder & Co. in New York, estimated Ford and Chrysler make up to a $6,000 profit per vehicle.

Baker said Jeep envisions Grand Cherokee as the segment's image not volume leader. Still, he remained confident of selling most of the 170,000 Grand Cherokees to be built at the new Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit after a second shift is added in August.

Bruce Gordon, marketing plans manager for Explorer, said rather than losing business to the Grand Cherokee, he could see Ford winning some.

``We think if anything, the Grand Cherokee will stimulate more interest in the sport utility vehicle segment,' he said. ``We can see people likely to cross-shop Explorers.'

Ford sold 123,677 Explorers through May 31 compared with 99,258 a year ago.

Grand Cherokee, which sold 13,742 units from launch in February through May 31, is one of a series of new cars and trucks Chrysler is counting on for profits to strengthen its financially tenuous position.

``A mighty big factor is the Jeep name,' said Thomas O'Grady, chief executive of Integrated Automotive Resources in Wayne, Pa. ``You combine that with a really good vehicle for a change, and you get a winner.'

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