SEMA Woos the First Tier

November 6, 2000

LET’S BE FRIENDS. Traditionally, automakers like Ford Motor Co. have acted as if aftermarket suppliers didn’t exist. But recognizing the growing market—and the fact that hot parts sell cars—Ford last year announced its SEMA Technology Initiative, providing inside engineering data on the Mustang GT to qualified parts makers. The program is being expanded, with six new models, the Focus, Windstar, Escape, Explorer Sport Trac, Explorer Sport and the all-new-for-2002 Explorer. "The technology initiative is working. It’s a huge success," declared Ford’s sales and marketing czar, Bob Rewey.

HOCUS-POCUS, FOCUS. Ford’s actually counting on its new SEMA "friends" to help create a market for the subcompact Focus in the booming compact sport segment. Also known as "rice burners," they’ve been a hit with young motorists, especially in Southern California. Enthusiasts often start with a used vehicle—typically a Honda—then load up with performance equipment. With Focus, "for the first time, we have a vehicle that will go head-to-head with imports," proclaims Ford exec Chris Theodore. As an example, the automaker rolled out the Focus FR200, a "performance parts showcase," explained Ford Racing Director Don Davis. The concept vehicle featured an assortment of modifications, including a radical rear spoiler, modified front fascia and a turbocharger that nearly doubled the normal output of the base Focus 2.0-liter Zetec engine. Ford has no plans to put the FR200 into production, though it’s hoping that SEMA members will start marketing most of the parts within two years.

MILES OF AISLES. The SEMA show just keeps getting bigger. This year’s event features an amazing 6200 booths and overflows the Las Vegas convention center and several large tents. The show should get a break two years from now when a new, million-square-foot addition is added to the LV hall. But there are some reasons to worry, admits SEMA’s executive director, Chuck Blum. During the last decade’s economic boom, sales of aftermarket parts surged by almost 10 percent a year—the U.S. market is now estimated at $27 billion annually, with SEMA members representing about 70 percent of that business. "We’re a little concerned because things slowed down in July and August," Blum acknowledged, warning that for the year as a whole, sales might be flat. And with an automotive sales downturn expected in 2001, parts sales could hit their first slump since the early 1990s.

Ford Lightning

Ford Lightning

SORRY, WE’RE OUT. Ford’s first Lightning, a high-performance version of the F-150, didn’t sit around long on the showroom floor. First-year production was sold even before the first Lightning rolled off the assembly line, and nearly the same thing happened the second year. Will Lightning strike three times? That’s what the automaker is hoping as it introduces an all-new version of the rocket pickup. The ’01 Lightning lists some impressive credentials, starting with its 380-horsepower, 450 lb-ft, 5.4-liter V-8. Ford officials claim the new version will outrun the standard Porsche Boxster—at a price of $32,000.

Honda Civic Dragster

Honda Civic Dragster

UNCIVILIZED CIVIC. You wouldn’t use this one-of-a-kind Civic to haul your groceries. But it sure can haul—with a 600-horsepower version of the stock Prelude VTEC engine, it’s capable of blasting through the quarter-mile in under eight seconds, 160 mph in the process. With a full tube frame and carbon fiber body, it’s been developed for dragster champion Stephan Papadakis, and will be campaigned next year on the NHRA circuit.

CHANGING COURSE. General Motors may have missed out on a big opportunity, admits John Smith, head of the automaker’s aftermarket parts operation. Back in the days of the muscle car, GM had plenty of parts for young drivers to tune vehicles like the Camaro and GTO. But "I don’t think we’ve made it easy for kids to consider us," says Smith, when they’re looking to create one of today’s hot compact sport cars. That’ll change, he promises, with an assortment of new GM performance parts under development. Of course, it would help if GM had a hot car to compete with the likes of the Honda Civic, one of the most popular "rice burners." That, too, could change, promises GM President Ron Zarrella. Look for at least seven new cars aimed at the entry and youth market by mid-decade, he promised during a SEMA appearance.

Chevy Bruin

Chevy Bruin

BEWARE THE BEAR. Chevrolet’s new Bruin Fleetside is the biggest pickup ever built. This crew cab monster bears a 26,000-lb GVW and boasts an eight-foot-wide cargo bed. The vehicle was so large, GM officials laugh, they had to build their SEMA exhibit around it.

IS THERE GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS? Ford hopes to mine its past with this ’49-er, a concept vehicle that lifts an assortment of design cues from some of the automaker’s most popular mid-century models. Normally reluctant to utter the "H-word," Ford’s design chief, J Mays, admits this is pure retro, though its ultra-smooth exterior is designed to meet modern market demands. Is Ford serious about this prototype? It’s a running model, with the platform a variation of the one used for both the Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln LS, and that, Mays hints, suggests it is more than just a styling exercise.

Mazda Muscle Protege

Mazda Muscle Protege

FAST LEARNER. This is one Protégé that can move. The MPS is Mazda’s first entry into the booming sport compact segment. "We’re looking at getting a little more ‘zoom, zoom,’" says Mazda Vice President Gordon Dickie, referring to the carmaker’s popular ad theme. The Protégé MPS adds another 20 horsepower to the base car’s 130 hp 2.0-liter in-line four. It’s got special seats, 18-inch, low wheels and low-profile tires, bigger front and rear stabilizer bars, a deep front air dam and, Dickie notes, there’s space set aside for a blower or turbo. Look for a price tag of under $20,000—if you can find one. Mazda plans to build barely 2000 of them next year.

Mazda Mp3

Mazda Mp3

A SOUND IDEA. The Protégé MPS also introduces the popular MP3 audio format to a production automobile. The Kenwood MP3 sound system will be standard on the Protégé MPS, and "with a single disc, we can put in up to 10 hours of music," notes Kenwood Vice president Bob Hall. The system features a remote control, and delivers 285 watts of audio power, including a 100-watt, trunk-mounted subwoofer. MP3 players are quickly becoming hot aftermarket options, and several other automakers are expected to add it as a standard feature in the next year.

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