By Grant Yoxon

Not since the introduction of Volkswagen’s New Beetle two years ago has there been anything like it – a vehicle so appealing that people are willing to put money down without a test drive, without sitting inside it, even without knowing what it will eventually cost … just to make sure they can get one when it finally arrives in dealer showrooms.

2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Thanks to great marketing and a look that appeals to both young and old, the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, which arrived at Chrysler dealers in Canada last week, has been largely sold sight-unseen.

“The forecast is we will only get 15 from Chrysler in the next few months,” says Ottawa-area Capital Dodge Chrysler general manager Rick Lamoureux, just before taking delivery of the dealership’s first PT Cruiser. “Right now we’ve already got eight or nine sold.”

The Cruiser is not the only new vehicle causing a stir among new car buyers. Demand for new ultra-efficient, low-emissions vehicles from Honda and Toyota have also been strong. At Acura, buyers put down deposits on the new Acura 3.2 CL before seeing the vehicle. And dealers are getting inquiries about the new Acura Sport Utility, the MDX, even though the vehicle won’t be available until at least September.

Production is limited for the PT Cruiser, which ranges in price from $23,200 for a base model with standard transmission to $29,415 for a fully loaded Special Edition model with automatic transmission, ABS brakes, roof racks and sunroof.

According to Mike St. Pierre, Public Relations Manager with DaimlerChrysler, Canada will receive 10,000 PT Cruisers in this calendar year and 411 had been sold by Tuesday, three days after the first cars reached showrooms.

2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Jim Curley is one buyer who couldn’t wait to see the PT Cruiser up close before putting a $1000 deposit down on the vehicle.

Mr. Curley, a vice president at the Export Development Corporation, first glimpsed the PT Cruiser at the Ottawa-Hull Auto Show in early February. “I had heard Chrysler was coming out with a new vehicle. When I saw it, I basically fell in love with it,” he says.

And that was without getting inside. “Unfortunately it was about 30 feet away (up on a turntable) and you couldn’t get close to it.”

After reading more about the Cruiser in magazines and researching pricing information on the Internet, Mr. Curley sent e-mails to area Chrysler dealers requesting a quote on the new retro-wagon. Only Capital Dodge Chrysler responded.

“We talked generally about prices, but there was nothing really firm at the time,” said Mr. Curley.

He expected the vehicle he wanted, a fully-loaded Special Edition PT Cruiser, would cost around $30,000 and he was not far off. Mr. Curley says it was the first vehicle he ever paid “full pop” for. “I couldn’t negotiate a penny.”

However, Mr. Curley was not asked to pay any premium above the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), a frequent practice, particularly in the United States, for in-demand new vehicles. He was pleased by the way he was treated by Capital Dodge Chrysler, saying “they were very fair, very up front.”

Last Friday, only hours after the first PT Cruiser arrived at Capital Dodge Chrysler, Mr. Curley got a call to come have a closer look at the vehicle he had ordered. After waiting eight weeks, he finally took his first test drive and was pleased with nearly everything about the vehicle. His only disappointment: the cargo area won’t quite accommodate four golf bags upright.

“Mind you, if you don’t have four people in the car you have ample room because you can just fold one of the back seats forward,” he added.

Mr. Curley says that paying full price for a vehicle he had never driven was out of character for him. “I’m not normally like that, but I wanted to treat myself, I really wanted the vehicle.” As well, he was concerned that if he waited until the vehicle arrived in dealer showrooms, there might not be any available to purchase.

DaimlerChrysler is not the only auto manufacturer that can’t produce enough of a specific vehicle to meet demand. Honda underestimated the popularity of its new fuel-efficient car, the Insight, and has increased production to meet demand in the United States.

North American media responded favourably to the Insight, a light weight (852 kg), aerodynamic two seater that is capable of 3.5L/100kms (80 mpg) for combined city and highway driving thanks to an extremely fuel efficient 1.0-litre, 3 cylinder lean burn gasoline engine assisted by a powerful, ultra-thin, permanent-magnet electric motor.

2001 Honda Insight
Good publicity has meant greater awareness of the Insight, translating into demand that Honda may have a hard time meeting. In the United States, Honda initially expected to sell only 4000 cars, but after strong early sales, increased production by 2500 cars annually to eliminate waiting lists.

Canada will receive just 320 Insights which went on sale Monday. Honda Canada spokesperson Bill Bunting says he believes about 20 or more Insights have already been sold sight-unseen.

Mr. Bunting adds that there is a limit on the number of Insights Honda can deliver. “There is a capacity issue right now too of 30 per day out of the factory in Japan, because it is an aluminum built car in a very specialist factory and 30 per day are built for Japan, the US and Canada.”

2001 Acura MDX
Oliver McEvoy, General Sales Manager at Camco Acura in Ottawa, confirmed the supply problem. Referring to Civic Motors, which like Camco is part of the Mierens group of dealerships, Mr. McEvoy says “I know they’ve taken about five deposits on the (Insight) and they’ve only got two coming in the first two months.”

Mr. McEvoy says that it is not unusual to receive deposits on vehicles like the MDX, Acura’s new Sport Utility Vehicle, that people anticipate will be “hot.” “We’ve taken three deposits on that car and it’s not supposed to be out until September, October.”

Toyota Prius
Another vehicle that is attracting attention from both the media and buyers is the Toyota Prius, which like the Insight is an ultra-fuel-efficient, gasoline electric hybrid vehicle.

Toyota Canada spokesperson F. David Stone says Toyota does not track pre-sales but dealers have already accepted deposits on the four-door, five-passenger vehicle which will not be available until July. How many will be available in Canada and at what price will be announced later this month.

More mainstream vehicles are also benefiting from strong demand in a year that may again be heading to record auto sales in North America. Ford Motor Co., for example, increased production of its Focus shortly after the distinctive compact’s introduction last fall after realizing that orders were even higher than the company’s confident forecasts. And Nissan is selling every copy it can make of its back-to-basics Xterra sport-utility. Some California dealers are reportedly tacking thousands to the sticker to take advantage of the demand.

Dealers realize that people may be buying with their heart rather than their head when purchasing a vehicle sight unseen.

2001 Acura 3.2 CL
Mr. McEvoy says, “what we do is say give us $500 and the first one that comes in is yours. If you don’t like the way it drives, we’ll give you back your money.”

For example, says Mr. McEvoy, two buyers who made deposits in advance of the arrival of Acura’s new 3.2 CL decided not to buy when it became evident that the 225 horsepower CL would not be available until September. While the car is available in the US, only the more expensive 260 horsepower 3.2 CL Type S is currently available in Canada.

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