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Requiem for 3 Heavyweights: GM Exits Big-Sedan Market

It's the end of an era for General Motors. Last Friday, workers at the Arlington, Texas, assembly plant that built three full-size land yachts - the Buick Roadmaster, the Chevrolet Caprice, and the Cadillac Fleetwood - churned out their last car, an arctic white Caprice. The factory is now making trucks.

There was little fanfare as GM abandoned the market for the big, rear-wheel-drive sedans on which it once based its reputation. The company didn't even send a photographer to record the last Caprice for posterity.

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Now Ford Motor Company is the only remaining maker of traditional big American cars.

GM's move reflects a seismic shift in buyer tastes that has shaken Detroit's Big Three in recent years.

A new crop of retirees has shown a preference for mid-size sedans. And younger buyers have shown a preference for trucks and sport-utility vehicles, and smaller sedans. Chrysler Corp. has joined GM in abandoning full-size cars.

It's also a time of transition for hundreds of police departments, taxicab fleet operators, and companies that convert big cars into limousines and hearses. All have relied on the GM cars and the competition they gave Ford.

One of those buyers is Sgt. Charles Gridley, who manages the vehicle fleet of the New Hampshire State Police. His department has just received its first shipment of Ford Crown Victorias. "We don't really have a choice," Sergeant Gridley says. "It's their car or nothing."

Chevrolet sold only 42,000 Caprices in 1996, compared with Ford's 100,000 Crown Victorias. "The market now is really in trucks," says Dan Hubbard, a Chevrolet spokesman. "Some markets you see going up, so it's worth staying in [even if they're small]. But this was just going down."

Police officers prefer the big, heavy rear-wheel-drive cars for their space and their handling, says Marshall Pugh, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. "For police officers, their car is their office for eight hours a day," he says.

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Officers must carry loads of lifesaving and emergency gear as well as the radios, computer terminals, radar units, and dividers installed in their cars. And the cars' weight makes them more stable at high speeds and safer in accidents. The Washington State Patrol eliminated smaller Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro pursuit vehicles from its fleet after an officer was killed and others injured when the cars were hit while on the side of the road.

TAXI fleets often buy "recycled" police cars. They like them for their durability and ease of maintenance. So selling more new Crown Victorias to police departments will bring Ford more business in taxicab parts later on.

Still, Ford isn't bragging about how much this extra business will help its bottom line. General Motors got out of the market because the market was too small, so picking up those few more sales won't make that big a difference, says Bob Williams, Ford's manager for government fleet sales. He says the market for police cruisers and taxis is no larger than 60,000 vehicles a year. In the past five years, he adds, Ford has steadily increased its share of the market and now sells 53,000 of those vehicles. This compares with about 1.4 million cars Ford sells annually in North America.

And fleet buyers are finding that Ford isn't their only choice:

*New York City, which recently required taxi fleets to purchase brand new cars when replacing old ones, is experimenting with various imports. These include Honda Odyssey and Isuzu Oasis minivans and even some Mercedes sedans, says Ray Kottner, a Yellow Cab driver in New York. In addition, a few Ford Explorers are on the streets.

So far, anecdotal evidence indicates that passengers and drivers like the new cars, says Alan Fromberg, spokesman for the city's taxi and limousine commission.

*Chevrolet is promoting alternatives to its Caprice for fleet buyers. Police-equipped Camaro sports cars and mid-size Lumina sedans have been on the market for a few years. Chevy is developing a special version of its full-size Tahoe sport-utility for use as a police cruiser. It performed nearly as well as the Crown Victoria in performance and handling tests by Michigan state police.

*Cadillac is building a heavy-duty version of its DeVille sedan to replace the Fleetwood for coach-builders, who cut and stretch such cars into limousines and hearses. Stretching the DeVille body is much more difficult, so the resulting limos will cost $2,000 more than comparable Fleetwoods. Still, Cadillac expects them to sell as well. About 80 percent of the market already goes to Lincoln Towncars, however.

Don Cuzzicrea of Superior/S&S conversions in Lima, Ohio, concedes that Cadillac has done its homework on the new DeVille platform. But he adds, "It's going to take an extra sales and marketing effort to get customers to accept it."

If the Crown Vic goes the way of the Fleetwood, buyers may hear that line from Detroit one last time.

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