February 7, 1997

Edited by Thane Peterson


Just what auto shoppers need -- more sport-utility vehicle models to choose from. Crowded as the market is, though, more are on the way. Dealers for the Buick division of General Motors, which is best known for ultra-traditional upscale American cars, have been clamoring for an SUV to cash in on the burgeoning truck market. And they may be about to get their wish.

GM marketing chief Ronald Zarrella said on Feb. 7 at the Chicago auto show that there's no conventional SUV in Buick's future. But Buick may come out with one of the new breed of hybrid vehicles based on a passenger-car chassis, but designed to look like a sporty SUV. "We may well do a hybrid" for Buick, says Zarrella. Such a vehicle would not arrive within the next two years, though, he adds.

As the sport-utility market grows, car companies believe that consumers will increasingly expect SUVs to offer the kind of comfortable ride and nimble handling they've become accustomed to in cars.

Following that logic, Toyota Motor Co.'s Lexus division on Feb. 6 unveiled a show car called the SLV, a fancy sport-utility based on Lexus' ES300 entry-luxury sedan. Lexus says it will begin importing the ES300-based SUV in the first half of next year. Like other car-based SUVs in the works, it offers a rugged suspension, high ground clearance, and a seating position well above the road, but is intended more for suburban mall-hopping than for off-road adventures. Lexus says it may be priced in the mid-$30,000 range.

GM's Pontiac-GMC division earlier in the day unveiled the Envoy, a concept vehicle that provides an early peek at the upscale version of the compact Jimmy SUV that GMC will introduce in mid-1998. The Envoy offers a leather interior, an on-board navigation service, premium sound system, and other luxury touches. Prices are expected to start above $30,000.

By Kathleen Kerwin in Chicago

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