The 1995 Saturn SL was the most-stolen vehicle in the United States last year based on thefts compared with the number of models registered, but hot-selling cars from Asian manufacturers remain popular targets and big sport utility vehicles are gaining ground.

According to Associated Press (AP), one out of every 200 registered 1995 Saturn SLs was stolen in 2003, placing it ahead of the 1998 Acura Integra and the 1994 Saturn SL as the vehicle thieves targeted most, Chicago-based CCC Information Services Inc., an insurance industry tracker of trends in theft and vehicle damage, said in its latest report.

CCC reportedly changed the way it calculated its list for 2003, combining stolen-vehicle data with vehicle registrations from RL Polk & Co. to determine the rate of theft as a percentage of registered models. In the past, it has reported only the brand and model year of those vehicles pilfered the most in a calendar year.

As such, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, two of the best-selling vehicles in North America, fell from the top of the list to the middle of the top 25, AP noted, though Acura, Honda’s luxury brand, had six versions of the Integra in the top 10.

“We can’t determine the exact reason thieves prefer some vehicles, but our data suggests some cars are stolen for the value of their parts, which may explain why we often see a `clustering’ effect with (specific) models from sequential model years,” Mary Jo Prigge, CCC’s president of sales and service, told Associated Press.

“Some manufacturers retain the same part-type from model year to model year, so a part from a 1993 model may fit a car manufactured three years later,” Prigge added.

AP noted that CCC, which provides software and information services to insurers and repair shops, receives loss claims from more than 350 property and casualty insurers in North America and the annual report is based on total losses for vehicles that are stolen and not recovered, or stripped to the point of being a total loss.

CCC spokeswoman Jeanene O’Brien told AP the shift to using theft and vehicle registration information provides more detail to the industry and consumers.

“It’s simply a more comprehensive snapshot of vehicle theft,” she said. “You’re not only looking at what was stolen but what was available to steal.”

According to AP, CCC said vehicles from the mid- to late-1990s were the most intriguing to thieves – vehicles made in 1997 were most susceptible, followed by model years 1996, 1995, 1994 and 1998.

Saturn spokeswoman Sue Holmgren told Associated Press the brand had no internal data showing high theft rates, but she noted it has made significant changes to its ignition system since 1995 – one enhancement is a feature that disables the vehicle’s fuel supply if it’s started without a key.

Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky told AP theft prevention is a goal of every carmaker.

“It’s important to make sure we continue to put the latest immobilisation technology into vehicles,” Schifsky said. “But when you’re dealing with popular vehicles, they’re going to be ones that tend to be stolen.”

Associated Press noted that, in the past, Toyota has taken issue with some aspects of CCC’s report, saying it’s skewed for cars with durability and isn’t a representative sampling because it excludes joy rides, among other things.

The average age of a stolen vehicle last year was 6.64 years, the study reportedly shows. Acura was the brand with the most stolen models, followed by Suzuki, Honda, Mitsubishi and Infiniti.

But larger, newer models such as the Chevrolet Suburban, Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon are becoming much more popular theft targets, CCC said, according to AP.

The news agency noted that a report released last summer by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said thieves go after the Escalade, the high-priced SUV, at a higher rate than any other vehicle.

The research group, funded by vehicle insurers, reviewed insurance claims for thefts or break-ins for 2000-2002 model-year vehicles, then compared those claims to the total number of insurance policies for each of those vehicles, AP said.

Based on theft claims per 1,000 insured vehicles, five of the top 10 vehicles stolen or broken into were SUVs, the report added.