Big Wheels

Even though gas prices continue to rise, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz expect a warm reception for their bigger and faster 2001 models.

November, 2000

“Absolutely obscene,” is how Kailua resident Charlene Kahn describes increasing fuel prices that have been draining pocketbooks nationwide. According to a study done by Lundberg Survey, a national petroleum market research company, local gas prices have jumped an average of 40 cents over the last year. The price per gallon for mid-grade unleaded fuel has climbed from $1.50 late last year to $1.96 the same period this year.

Meanwhile, car makers are producing and marketing luxury cars with larger engines and gas-guzzling full-size Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) unabated. In the 2001 version of the bigger-is-better sweepstakes, Toyota Motor Company, this March, will launch its first full-size SUV, the Sequoia. The engineers at Mercedes-Benz have been keeping busy as well, building bigger engines and adding fancy, yet functional, accessories to beef up their 2001 C-Class models.

“The increase in fuel prices really affect the mainland more than Hawaii, because we’re kind of used to the higher price of gas already,” says Wes Kimura, vice president for Toyota Hawaii. He says that full-sized trucks are the number one selling-vehicles, and although it’s unlikely that Toyota will dominate the market, the demand is large enough to warrant the unveiling of the Sequoia.

Comparable to Ford’s Expedition in nearly every dimension, the redwood-sized Sequoia is all about power and size. It houses a 4.7-liter V-8 engine and is roomy enough to seat as many as eight people—and their gear. In 1999 Toyota sold 1,109 of their mid-size SUV’s, the Forerunner, making it the top-selling SUV in the state. Kimura expects the Sequoia to steal some customers from both the Forerunner and the luxury Landcruiser.

More power: Toyota’s Sequoia and Mercedes-Benz’s C240.

“The Sequoia is for people who want something just larger and more powerful. Toyota customers have always demanded a larger vehicle,” says Kimura. “We have a Landcruiser, but that’s a really luxury SUV ($50,000+), so we wanted something in a little lower price range.”

And speaking of lower price ranges, in September Mercedes-Benz unleashed faster, high-performance versions of their C-Class model, more commonly referred to as the “Baby Benz.” Two new V6 engines will power the new C-Class models: 2.6-liter in the C240, and a 3.2-liter in the C320. “We’re trying to shatter the myth that Mercedes are expensive,” says Aaron T. Swain, sales representative for Mercedes-Benz. “With the new C-Class, you can get a lot of frills for under $30,000.”

Not only do they boast larger engines, but the C240and C320, which start at $29,900 and $39,900 respectively, are both lavishly equipped as well. Options include Bose premium sound systems, 6-speed transmissions, navigation systems, voice-activated command centers, and much more. “Our technology is what sells,” says Swain. “Normally you’d only find power and technology like this in our bigger cars, but with the new C-Class you get the same amount, just in a smaller package.”

Mercedes-Benz has taken aim at a slightly younger, more affluent market with the C-Class. “It’s still for the business professionals,” says Swain. “But there’s a lot of young business professionals out there, and they make the money now, so we want to get them into a Benz.”

The first shipment of six C-Class vehicles was sold on paper before it even hit the dock. Swain says that with the limited availability of cars to Hawaii (roughly 15-20 per month), the C-Class will likely be sold out until January 2001. “Still, I always encourage people to come in and get on the list. We build our cars around the customer,” he says.

The demand for the Sequoia has yet to be seen. However, sales of Toyota’s full-sized Tundra have been consistently strong, and Kimura is confident that the Sequoia will see similar profitability. “Quite frankly, the full-size SUV in the state of Hawaii is not that big of a seller,” says Kimura. “It’s a very profitable market, but it all depends. We have a lot of compact stalls, so you might not be able to park an SUV anyplace at Christmastime in Ala Moana!” Oh well, there’s always shopping online.


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Jacy L. Youn