LOS ANGELES — The most tangible signs of the auto industry recover on display here this week at the annual auto show is the surprising number of more specialized models aimed to exploit market niches.
These are vehicles that may have been on automakers’ wish lists, but were consigned to the back burner during the Great Recession as automakers focused focused their precious resources on core vehicles likely to produce the highest volume.
But a surprising number of automakers now are expanding their lineups into lower volume segments; adding entry luxury models and getting more serious about alternative powertrains such as fuel cells.
“Automakers are clearly pleased enough with the industry’s recovery that they’re finally able to focus beyond popular segments and address more specific markets,” said Lacey Plache, chief economist at Edmunds.com.
Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, said new products and fancy displays at this year’s show are “a reflection of the health of the industry. Five years ago, there was nothing here. It was pretty dark.”
General Motors concentrated first on launching its profitable full-size pickups but is now turning its attention to lower-volume midsize pickup segment. GM unveiled the new Chevrolet Colorado in a segment dominated by the Toyota Tacoma since Ford discontinued the Ranger in North America and Chrysler no longer has the Dakota.
Reuss said he knows investing in a pickup for a market segment that overall only sells 200,000 a year is “a bit of a risk,” but it is one GM is now comfortable with taking after years of delay.
Makers also are taking more risks on pricey products for small, but potentially profitable markets.
“We’re seeing evidence of a push toward more niche offerings like the Porsche Macan and the redesigned Mini Cooper,” Plache said.
Macan, a compact crossover SUV that will be Porsche’s fifth vehicle, will start just under $50,000 to bring in new buyers, but can hit about $111,00 fully loaded. “It’s a moment in history for buyers who thought they would never own a Porsche,” said CEO Matthias Mueller. Macan is due in May, but Porsche already is taking orders.
Lincoln also is has a new compact crossover on display, the coming MKC.
“Lincoln remains in dire need of fresh product, and the compact luxury crossover market is hotter than ever,” said analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book.
Audi is revamping its line of A3 small cars; going from a single hatch to a family with a sedan, a hatchback plug-in hybrid, a convertible and a performance S model. Diesel versions will be offered as well.
BMW has introduced a new 4 Series Convertible to take advantage of a growing near luxury category where sales are up more than 10%, Edmunds data shows.
Maserati has introduced its smallest sedan yet: the Ghibli which is 11 inches shorter than a Quattroporte and will start at $65,600 which is modest by the Italian carmaker’s standards.
And Mercedes-Benz displayed its new GLA crossover SUV on sale soon, a sibling to its new entry-level CLA sedan that starts at about $30,000 (but can climb fast).
Plache notes that it is this growing competition in the entry luxury market that makes it worth watching.
“With offerings like the Audi A3, and the Mercedes CLA-Class, luxury brands have an opportunity to capture a market of Americans who are starting to feel wealthy enough to jump into these vehicles,” Plache said. “They’re also appealing to Baby Boomers who are looking to downsize, but don’t necessarily want to give up on luxury.
Millennials also are interested in entry luxury vehicles even if they can’t buy them yet, said Isabelle Helms, vice president of research and market intelligence at AutoTrader, a website for people actively shopping for a new vehicle.
“They personally connect with luxury and imports,” said Helms who completed a study of Millennials this year and found almost half view their cars as an extension of their personality, more so than the generations before them.
Even non-luxury brands are pushing their range of offerings into the premium market, with Kia is entering the game with the 2015 K900 luxury flagship sedan on display here and expected to be priced about $50,000, while corporate sibling is about to update its flagship Genesis sedan.
“I like to think of this year’s L.A. Auto Show as the ‘Jumbo Shrimp Show’ because a lot of the smaller automakers are making a big splash, while the larger automakers are highlighting more of their fringe products,’ said Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell.
That includes fuel cell vehicles that use hydrogen to generate electricity and thus don’t have the range anxiety associated with batteries.
Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all had concepts with fuel cell vehicles to show in L.A.
“It could be the ultimate technology for the future,” said Tetsuo Iwamura, CEO of American Honda.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland welcomed the mix of technologies on display, including fuel cell vehicles which he said are coming to market faster than expected.
“We always hoped there would be a lot of platforms, a lot of choices.”