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Pickups, Jeeps, and minivans weaning many from their sedans

Beverly Hills is not exactly the heart of the Great American Outdoors. Along ultra-swank Rodeo Drive, one can find a procession of limos and luxury cars chauffeuring the elite from one tony shop to another. But these days, parked amid the Rolls-Royces and Jaguars, one can find a surprising number of Ranger pickup trucks and Jeeps.

Not all that many years ago, drivers turned to vans, Jeeps, and pickups strictly for their utilitarian purposes: to haul tools or wood, or to patrol their pastures.

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But millions of Americans are giving up their traditional automobiles in favor of these so-called ``multipurpose vehicles,'' which may better fit their life styles -- or at least project a desired image.

``A lot of the people buying Jeeps from us already have Jaguars or Rolls-Royces,'' says Jerry Netkin, sales manager at Walker-Buerge Ford-Jeep in West Los Angeles. ``You go to any hot nightspot in Beverly Hills or Malibu and the Jeeps get more attention than the Jaguars.''

Mr. Netkin says he is selling utility vehicles in record numbers to movie stars, record artists, and other jet-setters.

Today, according to William Pochiluk, director of Autofacts, an automotive research organization in Paoli, Pa., about half of all those vehicles sold each year are bought for personal rather than business use.

It's not only pickups that are winning converts, he says. Current sales of vans, Jeeps, pickup trucks, and other multipurpose utility vehicles -- a group also referred to as light trucks -- purchased primarily for nonbusiness use, are believed to total more than 2 million a year.

``The multipurpose vehicle has captured the heart -- and the pocketbook -- of more consumers than originally thought,'' Mr. Pochiluk says. ``This particular segment is expected to [grow] by 80,000 units a year through 1990.''

Among the most popular light trucks are the new minivan models. Chrysler literally invented this market three years ago and immediately found itself completely sold out. In fact, Chrysler has had to cancel production of its popular full-size models at an assembly plant in St. Louis to make room for a second minivan production line.

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Chrysler has also had success with other light trucks, and it recently invested roughly half a billion dollars at its Dodge City truck assembly complex in suburban Detroit to introduce a new mid-size pickup, the Dakota.

``The truck market is getting more important to us all the time,'' Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca has noted. ``Five years ago, we were selling 1 truck for every 5 cars. Today it's 1 for 2.''

The ratio has already reached one truck for every car for the Ford Division of the Ford Motor Company, according to Daniel Rivard, light truck development manager for Ford's truck operations.

That includes full-size vans and pickups, but Mr. Rivard says more than 50 percent of the truck sales will be compact or smaller pickups, vans, and other vehicles, such as the 4-wheel-drive Bronco, that are usually chosen by crossover buyers.

Why are light trucks so attractive?

``Over the years they have become a lot more carlike,'' says Chrysler vice-chairman Gerald Greenwald. ``When you look at our Dakota, there isn't a feature you can't have that you find in a car . . . and you have the capability of a pickup box when you want it.''

Bill Stolarski, who works at his parents' store in a suburban Detroit mall, drives a Chevy Blazer, a 4-wheel-drive hybrid blend of Jeep and pickup truck.

``It's basically a car for me. The only thing I've ever hauled in it is a little wood,'' he says, noting, ``I can tow a boat, and when the weather gets rough and nobody else is out, I'm driving along as if nothing is wrong.''

While trucks have traditionally been a male bastion, more and more women are making the crossover. Roughly two-thirds of the drivers of Ford's Aerostar minivan are women, according to Rivard. ``It's the utilitarian factor. It isn't large. It's easy to park. Yet it can haul a gaggle of kids.''

Whatever the reason for the car-to-light-truck crossover market, it is a boom for corporate coffers, since truck production is usually among the most profitable of domestic auto operations. Ford, for example, made money on its truck division even when auto operations were deeply in the red during the last recession. The minivan is Chrysler's most profitable product ever.

The utility vehicle boom has been a bonanza for otherwise-struggling American Motors, which posted record Jeep sales of 190,000 units last year. The company expects to top 200,000 in 1986.

``Jeeps are our bread and butter,'' says AMC president Jose Dedeurwaerder.

Most of the Jeeps and Ford Broncos sold at Walker-Buerge Ford-Jeep are ``tricked up,'' says sales manager Netkin. That means they are equipped with plush upholstery, oversize tires, fancy paint, high-quality audio systems, and all the other options normally found in a luxury car.

Because the vehicles are specialty items, the markup is generally higher, Netkin says. ``We make more gross profit on all our trucks than our car models.''

While domestic manufacturers now dominate the multipurpose field, foreign manufacturers have not been ignoring the trend. They began selling low-cost pickups more than a decade ago and are starting to import Jeep-class vehicles, such as the Isuzu Trooper.

Auto analyst Maryann Keller, of the securities firm Furman, Selz, Mager, Diets & Birnie, estimates that ``10 percent of their annual sales are in these vehicles.'' She forecasts that the Japanese could capture 30 percent of American multipurpose vehicle sales by 1990.

There is another problem on the horizon. Auto safety advocates are concerned that federal crash protection standards do not apply to any vehicle classified as a truck, even minivans, which are used almost exclusively as passenger car alternatives.

Most of the vehicles do not come with headrests as standard features, although these are designed to help prevent driving injuries. Few light trucks carry the protective steel I-beams in their doors that can absorb part of the impact of a side collision.

In fact some Japanese pickups even make bumpers optional. And while truck-type vehicles have a greater tendency to roll over after a crash, there is no roof crush requirement, as with autos.

Such problems have prompted hundreds of lawsuits, and there is a growing call for legislative action that would mandate autolike safety features on at least some light trucks.

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