Growing sport compact performance segment gets Big Three attention - finally

LAS VEGAS - California dealers have known for years about the sport compact performance market. Young drivers there enthusiastically accessorize and upfit and add power to street race, make statements and look cool. And have done so for years. Most of this activity has been with import vehicles. Now the Big Three want in on the act.

The compact performance aftermarket jumped from $295 million in 1997 to $756 million in 1999, most of the cash going to aftermarket manufacturers. It's expanded from California to other parts of the country, notably the South.

Steven Snyder, a Chevrolet dealer in Auburn, CA, thinks it's great that manufacturers are getting involved in this market.

"It takes a lot of federal and state laws and warranty problems away from the dealers if the manufacturers are offering these products and accessories," says Mr. Snyder. "Accessories also help make a product more desirable in a niche market and help move slow-moving product."

Bert Boeckmann, Ford's largest new-vehicle dealer and one of the first to get into customizing vehicles for customers, says having factory performance parts and accessories available smoothes out the whole sales process.

"It makes it easier to finance and service, and to talk intelligently about service with the customers," says Mr. Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford in North Hills, CA.

Says dealer Greg Penske of Longo Toyota in El Monte, CA , "From the customer's perspective, they're covered now. One of the important things for manufacturers is to make sure there is a wide-enough product variety available. In this segment, no one likes their cars to look like anyone else's."

At the annual Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Assoc. (SEMA) extravaganza in Las Vegas, General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler show just how committed they are to the compact performance market with countless show vehicles using parts readily available at dealerships.

"This business has exploded in recent years," says John Middlebrook, GM's vice president in charge of brands. "And much of it has been owned by aftermarket upfitters. But we have some good ideas of our own."

Some of those ideas take shape in the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire vehicles GM brought to SEMA. They feature a supercharged 2.4-liter, twin-cam engine, which produces 190 horsepower.

The Cavalier and Sunfire at SEMA feature ground effects packages consisting of a front air dam fascia extension and rocker moldings. Cavalier features integrated fog lamps and Sunfire features a ram-air-type hood bulge, providing an even more aggressive appearance.

"The Cavalier and Sunfire we are presenting at SEMA are much more than design exercises," says Letty Larkin, assistant brand manager-product, Pontiac Sunfire. "These vehicles are examples of what our customers can do with GM Official Licensed Products."

Says Mr. Middlebrook, "In fact, providing young performance enthusiasts the ability to customize and personalize their GM vehicles - with warrantied performance parts and accessories available through GM dealers - will be a critical element of GM's assault on the entry-level market going forward.

"Very importantly, these products are designed and packaged so that a knowledgeable do-it-yourselfer or hobbyist can perform the modifications personally - which is part of the attraction and part of the fun."

Ford Motor Co. also struts its compact performance stuff at SEMA, unveiling the Focus FR200.

The Focus FR200 is a 304-horsepower beast with a Ford Racing 2.0-liter Zetec cylinder head, prototype half shafts, racing double A-arm front suspension, prototype wheels and brakes from the 1999 Mustang Cobra.

The exterior of the FR200 features carbon fiber replacements for the hood, rocker panels, front fascia and fenders, rear quarter panels, fascia and wing.

"This incorporates a new line of extreme performance parts, aimed directly at the compact performance market," says Dan Davis, Ford's director of motorsports marketing. "This is uncharted territory for us."

"The compact performance market is a great opportunity for OEMs and aftermarket manufacturers," says Chris Theodore, Ford vice president, North American Car. "This market averages between $2,000 and $3,000 in accessories per car. This represents a revolution. In this market attitude is everything. Vehicles must make a statement."

DaimlerChrysler has been making performance statements with its entry-level Neon since it was introduced. A Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing package has been available since day one. But, like its manufacturing peers, DC is turning to the compact performance market with its smallest car.

At SEMA, Dodge revealed a couple of Neons meant to do more than provide reliable transportation.

The Neon Blast has a custom red, silver and black paint job, a rear wing, fiberglass hood, several performance enhancements and racing seats.

The turbocharged Neon from Atlanta-based performance parts distributor NOPI is bright red, has a color-matched fiberglass body kit with rear wings.