WARD'S '04 Fearless Showroom Forecast

Each year around this time, Ward's Dealer Business helps you cut through the static to determine where to devote your selling efforts in the new model year. Like those pigskin prognosticators who come out of the woodwork each fall, we shamelessly act like we're smarter than you when it comes to your own business. We're not, but because we pass ourselves off as journalists, we enjoy this annual opportunity

Each year around this time, Ward's Dealer Business helps you cut through the static to determine where to devote your selling efforts in the new model year. Like those pigskin prognosticators who come out of the woodwork each fall, we shamelessly act like we're smarter than you when it comes to your own business.

We're not, but because we pass ourselves off as journalists, we enjoy this annual opportunity to set aside our objectivity to ruthlessly select winners and losers. Since we've endured each auto maker's marketing hype — too many times, in some cases — we believe we deserve to blow off some steam and tell you whether it's bull or believable.

Here then, is our skinny on the '04 models to get behind — and which are lost causes.

General Motors

If you don't have a Cadillac store, mail head honcho Rick Wagoner a letter — better yet, FedEx him — pleading for one.

Cadillac is the hot ticket for '04. We reckon the handsome, well-tailored SRX cross/utility vehicle is money in the bank, particularly in the foul-weather states. But take our advice: be the smart guy who takes all the V-6 versions the big shots figure don't offer enough margin.

The SRX's 3.6L DOHC V-6 is all-new, performs almost as well as the V-8, and it'll make the car's ambitious pricing a lot easier for customers to swallow.

The tasty and crisp XLR roadster also is new to the game. Order 'em up, because production volume is modest. Yeah, 76 grand isn't a fall-out-of-bed sell, but at least for the first year buyers should outnumber cars.

And there's plenty of worthwhile action for the well-received CTS sport sedan. We'd take any and all high-performance CTS-Vs the region threw our way, because the hotshoes too restrained for Corvettes are going to be all over the 400-hp CTS-V. Meanwhile, the standard CTS enjoys the new V-6 shared with the SRX, a meaningful upgrade for what still is a reasonably fresh car.

Over at Chevrolet, the buzzword is Malibu. Don't go overboard, though: we predict only modest success for the dowdy looking but apparently well-made bread-and-butter sedan. A better gamble may be to add extra room in the floorplan for the Maxx, the 5-door hatchback variant of Malibu. Maxx packs the ideal amount of “edge” to attract hip families who don't want to spend silly money.

Forget Chevy's dumb SSR roadster/pickup, apart from its traffic-generating potential. Too expensive, too slow, too fuzzy of purpose. One-hit-wonder is too mild a term to describe how quickly the SSR's day in the sun will pass.

Instead, stock up on the Colorado, the all-new midsize pickup, and its GMC twin, the Canyon. Styling's normal, the inline 5-cyl. engine is linear and likeable. These will do as well as you can expect a compact pickup to do.

Remember Oldsmobile? This is the final year, in case we need to remind you. We'd stock a few extras just to satisfy the inevitable nostalgia purchases.

With the “new” Grand Prix hardly a home run, Pontiac's essentially a snoozefest until next year, when the shapely G6 replaces the Grand Am. Unless you're counting on the dull-looking '04 GTO. The new “Goat” will draw in some traffic, to be sure, but we wouldn't bet the farm on its staying power until a restyle happens.

Buick gets a new truck for '04, but are you willing to gamble Buick buyers want trucks? The midsize Rainier SUV might strike a chord — but then again it might not. But we thought the Rendezvous would launch like a lead balloon, and it's actually doing okay. Rendezvous Ultra, again with that new V-6, probably won't hurt you.

Ford

One word: F-150.

Actually, is that even a word? How about these five words: Take all you can get.

The all-new F-150 may be the Ford store's saving grace this year, because the rest of the cupboard is pretty bare. By all measures, the new “F” appears to be a solid winner, so we're giving the rare “take every damn one you can get” recommendation.

Be cautious about trim levels, though, because the 150s with the really fancy interiors may give heartburn to your tried-and-true truck customers.

Meanwhile, don't buy whatever fuss “The Factory” spreads about Freestar, the reborn Windstar minivan. Or Monterey, the new Mercury twin. They're still too trucky and way out of the Honda Odyssey/Toyota Sienna league. Go for base-level models and cut yer losses.

Oh, and we'd be remiss not to mention the GT supercar. Few will be made, all will be sold. Do we have to tell you what to do?

DaimlerChrysler

Ouch. That's what customers inevitably said when the saw the sticker for the new Pacifica. Even thought the brain trust is re-launching the handy-sized Pacifica with adjusted content and similarly “adjusted” pricing, we don't expect a turnaround of fortunes.

Your salvation is in Durango, which is all-new, tightly styled and has the glorious Hemi Magnum V-8 as an option. At the time this was written, we had no idea about pricing — but unless the Detroit string-pullers try to get the company's past two years' deficits back with this one vehicle by pricing it like Pacifica, we predict good things for Durango. Even though the last one lost a lot of steam in the market.

Trouble is, Pacifica and Durango are about all there is, unless you count the limited-purpose and dearly priced Crossfire. The all-new, Mercedes-based Crossfire may enjoy a limited run, but we wonder if you can expect a consist flow of customers into your Chrysler store looking to spend $35,000 on a 2-seater.

BMW

Our advice is not needed. There's an all-new 5-Series, so the sins of the 7 now can be forgiven.

Don't forget, though, that the all-new X3 crossover comes early next year, and we predict mucho customeros will follow. Order everything available.

Acura

Once, we'd almost given up on Honda's upscale franchise. But slowly, Acura seems to be getting it.

The new TSX sedan is a knockout winner, and you should pester your zone guy for all you can handle. Okay, it's front drive and the Infiniti store's got a fantastic rear-driver that better matches up with Mercedes and its ilk, but the TSX is fetchingly priced and has a sweetheart of a 4-cyl. Not to mention intensely loyal Honda mover-uppers.

There's more power for the MDX, and it's not a minute too soon because this darling of the crossover crowd is starting to look a bit saggy around the edges. Still a solid seller, but you may want to protect against over-indulging.

Mazda

We don't have to tell you the all-new RX-8 is a no-brainer. Killer pricing makes the new rotary powered sports cars one of the year's hottest tickets. Okay, engineers' inflating the horsepower rating wasn't a good thing, but it won't matter to the rotary loyalists.

Although the RX-8 is sexy, the real money in the bank may be the new Mazda3. We'd get behind this one all the way, because the styling is excellent and the 3 is a good drive, especially the model with the larger 2.3L engine which smoothes out the vehicle nicely and feels more civilized. If Mazda follows up on the RX-8 with aggressive pricing, we think the 3 is a good candidate to do a Superman imitation all year: fly off the lot, that is.

Toyota

Like it or not, the weird Prius hybrid may be the way of the future. Order them without fear, because it's more like a “real” car than ever before.

Selling the all-new Sienna minivan should be like falling off a log. Taking the regional rep out to dinner, securing a steady supply of Siennas in the process, would be a righteous business decision.

And the always-strong RAV4 and Highlander get stronger new 4-cyl. engines. We think the powered-up, slightly re-metaled RAV may be one of the sleepers of the year, particularly with a long list of standard equip that includes stability control. Stability control on a $20,000 miniute? Hey, it's 2004 — and it's Toyota.

Mercedes

Quiet year of modest new models/upgrades. Hush up and count your money.

Nissan

You heard it here first: unless you're in California, Arizona or Florida, don't count on the all-new Maxima. Street buzz is it's usual supporters aren't happy with the styling or the driving manners. Just for the record, we think it does look pretty weird. And what's with those mail-slot sunroofs that don't open?

No, the brand-new Titan pickup is Nissan's '04 showstopper. It's big, real big. And powerful, real powerful (an all-new, 5.6L V-8 churns out 305 hp and 379 lb.-ft. of torque, which thrashes everybody's V-8 except the Hemi).

Order Titans with abandon, because Nissan's only cranking out about 100,000 of them. And while the wife's there, sell her an all-new Quest minivan. In this case, “Q” is for quirky styling, but also for “quick sell.” We think Honda and Toyota finally have something to worry about with Quest, although samples we've tried don't look too durable inside.

Volkswagen

Some big questions for '04 under the VW sign. The new Touareg sport/utility vehicle is handsome enough, but it's working to overcome an outlandishly ill-advised name and a pushy price tag. It's tough to break through all the SUV/CUV static, and Touareg's success or failure may depend on you, the dealer. Customers want a VW SUV, we're convinced. We're not convinced one starting at 35 big ones is the answer.

So, too, with the hulking Phaeton. Put on your hardhat, because you're going to get a lot of pressure from above to sell this expensive Mecedes/BMW competitor with a VW badge. If they make you take 'em, hope you have better luck than your European counterparts, who are still waiting for that stampede of customers looking for the ultimate VW luxury car.

Bill Visnic is editor of Ward's Engine and Vehicle Technology Update newsletter.

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