Sporty two-seaters again, US-style

A two-seater automobile makes a lot of sense these days, not only to the carmakers but to the buyers as well In fact, many of the importers, both European and Japanese, have two-seaters on the road. Now the domestic companies are getting into the act.

With the introduction of the Ford EXP and its Mercury version, the LN7, the US auto industry is returning to a car style that was popular in the 1930s when the outside rumble seat was in vogue.

Philip E. Benton Jr., head of sales for Ford's North American automotive operations, points to the growth of the singles market, smaller households, more women buying cars, the youth market, changes in life style as well as a growing interest in sports, and the desire for a personal vehicle by more and more drivers.

"Almost one-third of all Americans who buy new cars come under the 'singles' heading," he asserts. While singles are mostly young, many are older as well. Too, they are often Trend-setters, but some are conservative. They are both men and women, and some are heads of households.

"This segment of the market has almost doubled in just two decades," Mr. Benton reports.

The Ford executive emphasizes that families and households are changing radically. While the number of households is increasing, the number of people in them is declining to the point "where more than half now consist of only one or two individuals."

Almost 50 percent of all families have no children at home, while some 40 percent more have only one or two. "There's no doubt that a lot of people buy cars for their use alone or with a very close friend," Mr. Benton says.

Women account for more than half the population both in the United States and Canada. In fact, says the Ford man, "they account for almost $33 billion worth, or around 40 percent, of new-car purchases every year."

The youth market represents those under 25 and includes 7 out of 10 of those who are single; 2 who are married couples without children, and only 1 who heads up a family. Many of these people are interested in a small car and don't have the need for a larger vehicle.

Life style has had its influence on small-car buying. New-car buyers in the 1980s will be thinking small, "but singles, mini-households, women, and young people -- all the way up to age 34 -- continue to express a consistent preference for high-quality, fun-to-drive, small sporty cars," Mr. Benton reasons. "And going along with these priorities are good gas mileage and exciting design -- preferably with a recognizably international look, because it seems they also lean toward foreign flair, even though they can't always afford it."

The average one-way trip by car in the US is less than nine miles. While two or fewer people are the usual crew, most Americans still want to own their own car.

"More than 87 percent of all households own one or more cars; and 84 percent of all 'person trips' are made in cars on more than 4 million miles of highways, roads, and streets in the US and Canada," Mr. Benton reports.

Despite the energy crisis, preliminary government data indicate that Americans continue to log more than a trillion miles a yer -- 41.6 percent for business; 33 percent for recreation, including vacations; 19.3 percent for family errands; and 4.9 percent for educational or civic purposes.

The small personal vehicle is also used for sports. More than 15 million North Americans take to the ski slopes every year, while more than 32 million compete on the tennis courts. Sixteen million more play golf, and 11 million have taken up racquet ball. Added to all this activity are the 38 million boating enthusiasts in the US.

Many motorists use their cars to get to these sports activities. The market is there, Mr. Benton asserts.

Besides Ford, the other US carmakers will be introducing their own two-seaters. General Motors has done a lot of research on its experimental "one by two," a vehicle with one seat for only two passengers.

According to Rob Van Voorhies, a GM project engineer, the experimental car has shown that it is possible to build comfortable transportation for two people and give good gas mileage as well.

Historically, it was thought that something had to be given up in comfort to make a small, fuel-efficient car. That's not so in this experimental vehicle, Mr. Van Voorhies asserts. The interior volume is designed to be similar to the space afforded in a larger car.

The GM two-seater is designed to fit the majority of all American motorists based on their widths and heights.

The car runs on a 3-cylinder, 1.5-liter engine."Most people who drive it aren't aware of its small engine," Mr. Van Voorhies says. With manual windows, transmission, and seat adjusters, the car, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures, gives 42 miles per gallon in city-type driving and 60 m.p.g. on the highway.

Another experimental model with automatic transmission, plus power windows and seats and a V-4 engine, is rated at 30 m.p.g. in the city and 50 on the highway.

Good aerodynamics has also helped the cars to achieve better mileage and appeal to the consumer.They're down the road but not too far, according to GM.

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