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Automakers Are Banking On New Niche Called `Car-ruck'


THE Plymouth Backpack could be touted as the ultimate mobile office.

Instead of a rear seat, there's a small desk. Swivel your seat around and you can hack away on a built-in laptop computer. When you've finished, slip your bicycle out of the built-in storage rack, and go for a spin.

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For the moment, the two-seat Backpack is nothing but a fantasy in chrome, one of several concept cars Chrysler Corporation debuted at the 1995 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But a production model may not be far off. Auto engineers see a new market niche developing, one that blends the car and truck segments into a hybrid with the ungainly rubric of ``car-ruck.''

The niche is an attempt by carmakers to capitalize on the massive changes taking place in the American new-car market. Light-truck sales hit a record high last year, and minivans, pickups, and sport-utility vehicles now account for nearly half the vehicles being sold in the United States. That's double their share a decade ago. And automotive planners and engineers believe that the Backpack, and other models unveiled here, could be the logical extension of this sales boom.

``We see the X-90 as a bridge between the sporty compact-car category and the sport-utility vehicle segment,'' says Gary Anderson, head of sales and marketing for American Suzuki Motor Corporation. Suzuki's X-90, which also was introduced at the Detroit auto show, is a real vehicle, rather than a prototype. It will go on sale next fall.

Suzuki may be first to market, but it won't be alone for long. Subaru is working on its own car-truck hybrid, and so is Mercedes-Benz. The All-Activity Vehicle,'' or AAV, will be built at the new Mercedes plant in Vance, Ala., when it opens in 1997. Like a sport-utility vehicle, it will be roomy, functional, and able to traverse rough terrain with its four-wheel drive. But the AAV will be stylish enough to take to the opera, and its drive will be like a conventional Mercedes sedan's, not like a truck's.

While Mercedes is targeting the older, more affluent buyers, Suzuki and other manufacturers are setting their sights lower - and younger. The Backpack prototype, the X-90, and other ``car-rucks'' are aimed at Generation-X buyers. They don't have a lot of money to purchase today's expensive sport-utility vehicles. They aren't product or brand loyal. If anything, they're open to new ideas and new products.

``People love their sport-utility vehicles, but they are getting tired of driving trucks,'' insists Michael Jackson, vice president of Mercedes-Benz North America. ``We see an opportunity'' to create a new niche that falls somewhere between sedans and sport-utility vehicles, Mr. Jackson says, adding that he believes that ``others will follow.''

Indeed, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, and other manufacturers have their own ``car-rucks'' under development. The light-truck sales boom shows just how much is at stake. Sport-utility vehicle sales have increased 3,000 percent since 1982, and topped 1.2 million last year. The minivan market has, if it's possible, grown even faster, from roughly 13,000 to almost 1.4 million, over the same period.

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The Big Three automakers are far more dominant in the light-truck markets than they are in passenger cars.

But in a new segment, ``whoever gets there first is in a good position to dominate,'' notes Susan Jacobs of Jacobs & Associates, an automotive consulting firm in Rutherford, N.J.

But does a new niche really exist that is waiting to be mined? The debate has been fierce.

``I have a difficult time seeing that niche,'' counters Roger Simpson, who served as program manager for the original Ford Explorer, the nation's best-selling sport-utility vehicle. ``There may be something there, but it would be small.''

Indeed, plenty of rusted hulks are left as reminders of past failures to create new market niches. Several manufacturers, including Honda, have failed to stir much demand with their high-top station wagons.

The downsized Nissan Axxess minivan was a dismal failure and has been pulled. And the Mitsubishi Expo, a micro-minivan, hasn't generated much enthusiasm from buyers. Others seem more optimistic, including Ford President Ed Hagenlocker, who noted that the automaker is examining the ``car-ruck'' concept.

``I believe there is a legitimate new segment, a place for empty-nesters,'' suggests auto William Pochiluk, chief analyst with Autofacts Inc. of Paoli, Pa.

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