RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Competition has heated up in the U.S. car market. Not only are the big companies like General Motors and Toyota slugging it out, but small niche players are making the push into the mainstream as well. One of those small companies is Subaru. Subaru vehicles are already popular in several regions of the U.S. - Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. Now it's got its sights set on the South, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Here's one of my favorite TV bits. It's from the relatively new, very silly show "Portlandia." Two characters met at an intersection in Portland, Oregon; both are driving Subarus.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, no, no, go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Drive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You first.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm going to go after you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hit the road, Jack.
GLINTON: The show makes fun of all things Portland and the fact that they're driving Subarus, that's a part of the joke. Here's the thing. That's not some idle stereotype. Since most Subarus are all wheel drive, they're particularly popular in places where the weather can be dicey, like the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast.
MICHAEL MCHALE: If you're number four in Portland and you're number 20 in Texas, probably the opportunity is in Texas.
GLINTON: Michael McHale is with Subaru. He says the company had to be more ambitious and rethink the U.S. market.
MCHALE: So sometimes we look at the differences around the country. We think that Portlandias are different from Tennesseans are different from Floridians. So we see that difference, but underlying all of that, there are still basic human truths. So there are people in Tennessee, I think, like to go fishing. I think there are people in Tennessee that like to go hiking,
GLINTON: Not only did the company think differently about the country, they started to sell in a different way as well - beefing up distribution and dealerships.
Jessica Caldwell is with Edmunds.com. She says the company had a strange problem: Their cars were almost too good and their customers too loyal.
JESSICA CALDWELL: I think they have a core loyal following and you would never want to get rid of that. Again, you know, people that will trade in their car and buy a new one. But at the same time, they keep their cars for a long time and you can't have people keeping their cars for, you know, a decade or more when you want to sell new cars.
GLINTON: Caldwell says the company tried to sell to the middle of the country by making their cars wider, rounder, less boxy, more conventional looking and more fuel efficient. And it worked.
During the economic downturn, when other companies' sales were declining, Subaru sales increased by a third, and it began building more of them in the U.S. It's one of the fastest growing car companies in America, with its biggest growth markets Houston, Dallas and Florida
Jake Fisher is with Consumer Reports. He says Subaru can serve as an example for other car companies looking to grow.
JAKE FISHER: So really they've kind of, you know, taken this kind of slow, systematic approach and just really concentrated on what they needed to do to be competitive in the market.
GLINTON: Fisher says Subaru has solidified its place in the American market, but he says they'll probably never be as big as Toyota or Ford.
FISHER: I don't think they have to be a Toyota. They don't have to be everyone else. They don't have to be everything to everyone; they have to be something to someone.
GLINTON: Again, Subaru's Michael McHale.
MCHALE: If you're buying a big truck in Texas, keep buying the big truck - we're not the brand for you. But if you're looking for an all-wheel-drive vehicle that you can throw the dog in the back, the skis on the roof, and go in the mountains for the weekend, I think they have some nice hills in Tennessee too.
McHale says Subaru has conquered Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine. Now it's on to Portland, Texas, Portland, Michigan and Portland, Tennessee as well.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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