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AMERICAN CAR BRANDS GET COLD SHOULDER

Even though they're better than ever, domestic cars are on fewer shopping lists.

Many car shoppers have simply written off American brands. They are impervious to advertising, dismissive of new American models and disdainful of those who buy them.

As recently as six years ago, according to Ford Motor Co., slightly more than 48 percent of U.S. car buyers said they would consider only domestic brands such as Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler. Today that proportion has shrunk to 36 percent.

I offer this anecdote: A few weeks ago I pointed out a new Buick Enclave large sport utility vehicle to my daughter and son-in-law and asked for an opinion. "Ecch," said my daughter, the self-confessed brand snob, "I'd never drive a Buick." Her husband concurred, though agreeing with me that the Enclave has a nicely styled exterior.

The phenomenon of shoppers that turn their noses up at venerable U.S. automotive brands has been growing for at least two decades, propelled by poor quality, reliability, durability and resale values of many domestic nameplates. Import makes, meanwhile, have made steady improvements.

Dan Bonawitz, vice president of planning and logistics for Honda Motor Co. in the United States, summed it up at a June preview for the new Honda Accord, scheduled for introduction this fall.

"Very few Accord buyers cross-shop domestic brands," he said, though "they do look at the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima."

Brands and nameplates that don't make enough shopping lists can quickly founder. When that happens, GM, Ford and Chrysler have tried new names. But unfamiliar names can bring new headaches. Ford dropped the well-known Taurus name and introduced a new similarly sized sedan called Five Hundred. The Five Hundred flopped in part because few shoppers knew what it was. Ford recently jazzed up the Five Hundred's appearance and changed its name back to Taurus.

Ford and other Detroit automakers inflicted most of these wounds on themselves. They chose in the 1990s to spend most of their capital, talent and energy on new and better pickups, big SUVs and minivans.

GM, Ford and Chrysler skimped on new car development, figuring they could earn more on truck-like models. In the short-term the strategy worked.

But Detroit's game plan backfired, as higher gasoline prices and changing fashion drove consumers away from larger vehicles.

The new cars from GM, Ford and Chrysler unquestionably are better than ever. Some, like the Ford Fusion, are reasonable alternatives to Camry and other foreign brands. But if consumers withhold what marketers call "purchase consideration," it doesn't matter: New U.S. models won't make shopping lists.

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