Power up the Wurlitzer. Start the funeral procession. It's time to bury the old axiom that safety doesn't sell. A survey of factory-installed equipment trends shows safety-related items are among features demanded most often by new car and truck buyers, and more of the same is expected for the '96 model year.
Spurred both by government mandate and consumer clamoring, air bags now are standard equipment on every U.S. passenger car assembled in North America. Dual front air bags -- unavailable as recently as the '92 model year - were installed in 83% of '95 model domestic passenger cars (based on production through March). It's a similar tale in the light-truck market, where driver's air bags have one from ground zero in '91 to 70% penetration today. Dual air bags were packed into 19% of the '95s, up from less th an 10%, in '94.
Imports trail domestics somewhat on the air bag front -- particularly in light-truck applications. But it is offshore producers that are leading the charge when it comes to side-impact bags. AB Volvo, which launched the device as standard on '95 850 turbo models. will make the system available across its entire lineup in '96. Mercedes-Benz AG is putting side-impact air bags in its new E-Class cars, expected to hit the U.S. late this year. And Benz may be first with side air bags in light trucks when it puts the device in its U.S.-built '97 sport/utility vehicle.
AG and Audi AG also are readying applications, and Corp.'s Interior & Lighting Systems operations plans to have its first side-impact bag on the market in the '97 model year. A recent poll conducted by the Automotive Safety Restraint Council concludes 90% of U.S. consumers now want and understand air bags, compared with 30% just three years ago and 85% of those polled want side-impact air bags. But the safety story isn't just air bags. Installation of antilock brakes (ABS) -- still not mandated by the government -- has grown rapidly in the past six years. Nearly 58% of '95 domestic cars and 89% of trucks are rolling out of factories with ABS, up from 7.6% and 79%, respectively, back in '90. And where truckmakers once dabbled with less-expensive 2-wheel ABS, they rapidly are making the switch to 4-wheel systems as costs come down. In '90, 77% of the trucks built in the U.S. had rear-only ABS, with just 2% sporting the feature at all four wheels. This year, 54% have the 4-wheel systems and 35% rear-only ABS. Four-wheel ABS should hit 90% penetration on trucks by 2000, says Kelsey-Hayes, a unit of Varity Corp.
Although still a small percentage, traction control systems -- considered an economical alternative to 4-wheel drive in passenger cars -- are catching on as well. Domestic installations shot up to 11% in '95 from just 4% in '93. More than 50 vehicle lines sold in the U.S. now offer traction control systems.
But it's not all safety. Among fastest-growing options are sunroofs and compact disc (CD) players. And appearance, convenience and performance features also are in demand. Sunroofs, which midway through '95 were installed on 10% of all new cars built in the U.S., are gaining in popularity. Suppliers predict a 20% penetration in the North American vehicle market may be possible, if the industry can gain applications on light trucks. Only 10 '95 model light trucks made in the U.S. (including transplant models) were available with factory-installed sunroofs, while 56 passenger cars had the feature. A few new truck programs are in the pipeline -- GM's '97 model front-drive minivans and Mercedes' upcoming SUV will sport sunroofs. Top-of-the-line stereo systems, complete with CD players, also are on the rise. Premium speaker systems (such as Bose offered by GM or JBL sold byMotor Co. now are on 7% to 10% of all cars sold in the U.S. And CD players are in 8% to 9%.
The hottest new items on the horizon? Extra doors for pickups and minivans. GM will launch S I O/sonoma extended-cab compact pickups with optional rear access panels in December, and it expects at least 70% penetration for the feature. About 30% of the buyers of full-size extended cabs should opt for a third door, but GM is tooling up for a 70% penetration just in case. Extended-cab versions of the new '97F-series trucks will have atandard third doors.
Corp. is leading the movement on the minivan front with its driver's side rear door. Chrysler says it's too early to gauge demand. but buyers surveyed overwhelmingly point to the fourth door -- a $450 option -- as their favorite feature in the new minivans. GM will follow suit on its '97 front-drive vans, and Ford is working on incorporating the feature into a future-generation Windstar. With average new-vehicle transaction prices reaching $19,676 in calendar 1994, it's clear consumers are doling out big money for options. Some of that more discretionary spending will be among the first things to go in the impending down cycle, analysts point out. But consumers now accustomed to the benefits of antilock brakes, air bags and traction control may have trouble weaning themselves away from such features.