As small car sales plunge, automakers are turning to power locks, sun roofs and fog lamps to help them survive.
Flourishes that used to be the domain of Cadillac and Mercedes are increasingly showing up in Dodge Neons, Ford Escorts and Chevy Cavaliers. Some automakers credit the extras for helping them post sales gains, even as the overall small car market fell 6 percent in the past 13 months."People no longer want cheap, vinyl-seated cars," said Joe Caddell, Chrysler Corp.'s small car manager. "The buyer has become a little more sophisticated."
Chrysler did away with the basic Neon for 1998 and began offering the middle model at the base price. It also began offering sportier, more luxurious upgrades that included a power sunroof, power windows, special wheel covers and a leather-covered steering wheel.
Caddell said the upgrades helped Neon post a 16.5 percent sales gain in the last four months, after sales fell 22 percent in the first nine months of 1997.
Ford Motor Co. credits a new, sportier coupe for breathing life into the Escort, with sales up 13 percent since October.
The Coupe has a more powerful engine than the standard Escort, fold-down rear seats and options such as remote entry locks. Six of every 10 coupe buyers pay an extra $600 for the sport package, which includes a spoiler, sportier wheels and fog lamps.
The Cavalier, which posted a 9 percent sales gain last year, has amenities such as headlights that turn off if accidentally left on. It also has an engine that shuts down if the car was started by anything other than the owner's key.
But automakers can only help themselves by making small cars less bland, said Eric Noble, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc.