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Fri, Jan 13, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Automakers wait to see what sells

NEW MODELS Market watchers at an annual US auto show anticipate the new Toyota Camry and the Chevrolet Tahoe will be the hot sellers this year

AP , DETROIT

Automakers introduced everything from a US$120,000 pickup to a US$14,000 subcompact at this year's North American International Auto Show. Now, all they can do is sit back and see which vehicles will sell.

The pickup is a Chevrolet Kodiak, a medium-duty mammoth specially outfitted with three DVD screens and the same custom paint used on Cadillacs. Shaquille O'Neal already owns one, but not too many other buyers are expected to be snapping them up.

That's not the case for a number of other vehicles at the show that industry analysts say should be hot sellers when they hit the market this year. Among them is the 2007 Toyota Camry, the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle (SUV) and the 2007 Honda Fit, a US$14,000 subcompact that goes on sale this spring.

"What I liked about the show is that there was something exciting in every segment," said Mike Jackson, chairman and CEO of AutoNation Inc, the largest US auto retailer. The auto show opens to the public tomorrow.

One of the first vehicles to reach the market is the Tahoe, part of General Motors Corp's new lineup of SUVs.

It's set to hit showrooms within a few weeks. Higher gas prices mean SUV sales may not reach the peaks they did a few years ago, but Jackson said new products like the Tahoe -- with better fuel economy, better handling and a more car-like interior -- could stabilize the SUV market.

"I'm not as pessimistic about large SUVs as everyone else," Jackson said.

Jackson also praised the 2007 Dodge Caliber, a replacement for the Dodge Neon, which he said has bold, aggressive styling at the reasonable price of US$13,985. The Caliber goes on sale this spring.

David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, said the Caliber will sell well if fully-loaded versions are still priced reasonably, but he thinks sales could slip if the Caliber goes above US$17,000.

Another car in that segment, the Honda Fit, also should be a strong seller, said Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, an auto information service. As sedans like the Honda Civic have gotten larger and more upscale, the Fit fills a need in Honda's lineup, Nerad said.

Industry-watchers universally praised the Toyota Camry, a redesign that comes out in March.

Jackson said an increase in horsepower will help the sedan retain its crown as the US' best-selling vehicle, which it has held for eight of the last nine years. Champion said the new Camry has better styling that will set it apart from competitors.

"It's more interesting without going so wild that you alienate your current Camry buyers," Champion said.

Mark McCready, director of pricing strategy and market analysis for CarsDirect.com, said several crossover vehicles -- which are car-based SUVs -- also should see strong sales. Crossovers are expected to outsell SUVs for the first time this year.

The 2007 Ford Edge, which comes out this fall, has solid styling and gives people who want a domestic crossover a good option, McCready said.

He also praised the Hyundai Santa Fe, which drives like a car but has added a third row of seating, an advantage over the Ford Edge.

No vehicles caught show-goers' eyes like the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro muscle cars, but both are concepts, which means they may or may not go into production.

The Challenger is almost a replica of a 1970 version, while the Camaro is an updated design based on the classic that first came out in 1967.

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