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PORSCHE DOWNSHIFTS TO MATCH U.S. MARKET

Competition forced the little independent automaker to expand its product line while keeping its sports car mystique.

From an ice-driving course in Colorado to expanding a driving school at a Birmingham, Ala., racetrack, Porsche executives are trying new ways to get Americans to sample the uber-engineered toys.

But the German automaker and its North American executives, based in Sandy Springs, Ga., also are pursuing a more radical avenue: rolling out new vehicle choices that are more practical, at least by Porsche standards.

After more than 50 years of making only sports cars, Porsche branched out five years ago to produce an SUV, the Cayenne. Sports car purists were horrified, but it became a fast seller.

Now, Porsche, a little independent automaker in a world of auto-making giants, plans to stretch itself even more with a hybrid version of the Cayenne and a four-door sedan.

The trick will be making sure that Porsche doesn't dilute its image with loyal customers as it tries to diversify.

That will require introducing vehicles that still perform like Porches and deploying marketing that doesn't mess with the company's mystique, said Peter Schwarzenbauer, CEO of Porsche Cars North America, which covers the parent company's biggest market.

"Nobody needs a Porsche," he said. "So it's a very emotional decision of purchasing our product. It's extremely important to keep this brand on track."

Porsche customers tend to be loyal to the brand and its powerful performers, including the 911 and the Boxster. But without a broader product line, Porsche risks losing customers - who on average own just more than three vehicles each and want choices that fit their lifestyle.

The Panamera sedan is scheduled for launch in 2009, with plans to sell 20,000 vehicles worldwide in the first year. The United States typically accounts for about 40 percent of Porsche's sales.

Schwarzenbauer said the company has yet to determine a price range for the Panamera, though some industry watchers peg it at $100,000 or more.

With the new Panamera sedan, Porsche has to assure "we are delivering the Porsche DNA," Schwarzenbauer said. It has to feel like "this comes from a company that basically builds only sports cars."

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