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Big 3 Going Toe To Toe With Asian Rivals?

Wednesday, 13 Jun 2007 | 10:08 AM ET
2007 Saturn Aura
2007 Saturn Aura

If you walk in to a Saturn showroom this week, you'll find the Aura, Outlook, a Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. That's right, Saturn dealers are putting the Accord and Camry in their showrooms and challenging prospective buyers to test drive the foreign models, then test drive the Aura. You might think it's a gutsy move by a brand that, until the last year, has been a weak competitor. But Saturn, like Ford, is feeling that it has the wheels to not only stand up to Toyota and Honda, but also win over foreign car owners.

This is the new "get tough" approach in Detroit. After years of trying to dismiss or even ignore the growing popularity of foreign brand cars, the "Big 3" have finally seen the light. The only way to beat Toyota or Honda is with better designed and better built models.

Ford's Fusion and the Saturn Aura are two of the better attempts from Detroit. Both are a huge improvement over the previous mid-size sedans from those company's. No wonder sales are up 30% at Saturn (the new Outlook, Vue, and Sky are also important contributors) and up 15% for the Fusion year over year. By comparison Camry sales are down 1% and Accord sales are up 6%.

But the real challenge is conquest sales. The number of buyers who are trading out of a Ford for a Toyota, etc. On that front, the Aura and the Fusion still have their work cut out. According to CNW marketing, just 12% of the conquest sales for the Aura are people trading out of a Toyota.

Meanwhile, just 11% of the Fusion's conquest sales are Toyota owners. By comparison 37% of the conquest sales for the Camry are people getting out of their GM or Ford models. Overall, almost half of the people who bought a Camry last year, more than 200,000, left a competing model for the best selling car in the country. The overall conquest rates for the Saturn Aura is 39%, and it's over 40% for the Fusion.

I like what Saturn and Ford are doing by challenging people to test drive their models, then test drive foreign models. It shows they are not afraid of standing up and saying, "Hey, we're every bit as good as Toyota or Honda". That attitude and approach is the only way Detroit is going to reverse it's sliding sales.

For years Toyota picked up business by studying the Big 3, building models that went beyond what was coming out of Detroit and essentially letting consumers decide with test drives. We'll see if Ford and GM can replicate that type of success by taking on their foreign rivals head to head.

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Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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