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[imgl]http://cmsimg.tennessean.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=DN&Date=20080915&Category=BUSINESS01&ArtNo=809150335&Ref=AR&Profile=1003&MaxW=550&MaxH=650&title=0[/imgl]For more than a year, Steve Kirby has watched with envy from his post in the showroom of Jim Reed Chevrolet as customers at his competitor across Broadway drive off in their new GMC Acadia or Buick Enclave crossover utility vehicles.

Kirby, sales manager at Jim Reed, had nothing to offer those customers because Chevrolet's entry into the fast-growing crossover market was still on the drawing board.
"Chevrolet has not had anything in its own product line to do battle with the other crossovers," he said.

That's about to change.

On Saturday, the first shipment of Chevrolet's all-new, 2009 Traverse crossover left the Spring Hill assembly plant, and Nashville-area Chevy dealers say they're revved up about the new vehicle and can't wait to get it into their showrooms.

GM introduced the Acadia and similar Saturn Outlook in fall 2006, then added the Enclave last summer. The Traverse is the fourth vehicle to be built on that same architecture, GM's so-called Lambda platform.

While the first three models have been selling well, even in the current slow auto market, GM expects sales of the Traverse to quickly eclipse those.

That's because there are about four times as many Chevrolet dealers — about 4,700 — as there are Buick, GMC and Saturn stores combined.

"We're really eager to get it," Kirby said. "The only vehicles we've had to offer customers are the TrailBlazer, which has run its course, and the Tahoe, which is more expensive. The Traverse begins at $28,000, and we've really needed a vehicle at that price point."

At AutoFair Chevrolet in Antioch, General Manager Terry Hart said he's sure the Traverse is going to be a hit.

"It's a whole new segment for us, and we're really enthused about it," he said. "I anticipate it to be in high demand."

Dealers said customers are already looking for the Traverse, but they'll have to wait a little longer to find it in showrooms.

Production began Sept. 2, but most Nashville-area dealers won't have one in stock until Oct. 3, when GM plans a celebration at the Spring Hill plant to mark the vehicle's official launch. Top GM officials will be on hand, as will Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Kirby said he plans to drive Jim Reed's first Traverse away from the plant at the end of the celebration; other local dealers will do similarly. "Everyone will have at least one on their lots after the event," he said.


Ads target women

Chevrolet has already kicked off its national ad campaign for the Traverse, beginning with two TV spots aired during the recent Olympics broadcasts.

Both of those ads were aimed at "style-savvy females," said Steve Bartolone, Chevrolet's marketing director for SUVs and crossovers.

In one of the commercials, a woman is driving along in a Traverse as shoes begin raining from the sky. She stops, gets out and begins stuffing the shoes into the vehicle's cargo area — clearly big enough to get a good haul when it begins raining shoes.

"We see the crossover segment as a great opportunity," Bartolone said. "It started earlier in this decade with just a few players and about 150,000 annual (unit) sales. But it's coming in around 900,000 units this year, and we see it growing by an additional 50 percent by 2012."

Aiming the initial marketing efforts at women makes sense, he said, because they buy 42 percent of crossovers and are the primary drivers of 67 percent of them.

"We're going to continue on the path of style-savvy female buyers, but we will target male buyers through traditional print ads and sporting events, perhaps Major League Baseball," Bartolone said, adding that the vehicle's EPA rated at up to 24 miles per gallon on the highway.

As for safety, the Traverse already has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety after scoring all five-star ratings in crash tests, Bartolone said.

Early consumer studies have convinced GM that the vehicle's styling probably will be its strongest selling point, he said.

"As we designed it, we made sure that it is everything the customer wants, and we believe it is drop-dead gorgeous," Bartolone said.

"We say it's the vehicle you won't want to hide in your garage."


Workers are enthused

The 3,481 workers at Spring Hill are cheering on the Traverse and see its success in the marketplace as job security for them, said Mike Herron, chairman of United Auto Workers union Local 1853, which represents hourly workers at the plant.

About 2,400 of them were laid off when production of the Saturn Ion and Vue models ended in March 2007. But they were called back to work this summer after GM decided to build the Traverse at the plant. The automaker spent about $700 million to rework the facility for the new vehicle.

"The quality of the vehicle at this point in the launch is outperforming all measures, and I attribute that to the team here at Spring Hill," Herron said. "We've had a lot of contact with the retailers in this area, and they say they can't wait to get the vehicle."

The Traverse appears to be "the right vehicle at the right time," said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book and kbb.com.

"It's a great soccer-mom vehicle, very stylish, and it does all the things a suburban family vehicle should do," he said. "I do think it will succeed. It's perfect for shuttling the kids to school and dance lessons."

The vehicle is "very fuel-efficient for its size and utility," said Erich Merkle, an automotive marketing expert with the Michigan-based Crowe Horwath accounting and consulting firm.

"As gas prices begin to recede, or more importantly, we get some stabilization in prices, consumers will be looking for a blend between efficiency and utility, and the crossovers really provide that," he said.

"The Traverse is the face of what's to come. And it's smart to target women, as a lot of them are already driving crossovers."

Source: http://www.tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080915/BUSINESS01/809150335/1003/BUSINESS
 
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