Here come the made-in-US minitrucks

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

After throwing up their hands at the Japanese-built minitruck onslaught, US automakers are about to launch a long-put-off offensive of their own. Indeed, almost every ultra-small truck sold in the US in recent years has been stamped "made in Japan." Even the small- size pickups sold by General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford were built by their Japanese affiliates, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, and Toyo Kogyo.

The minipickup market is large and growing, and provides an attractive profitmaking incentive to US makers.

Too, it is crucial to the domestic companies if they are to go on selling their full-size lightweight trucks in the marketplace. Without the high-mileage minitrucks, rising fuel- economy standards in 1982 and beyond would cast the future viability of the full-size vehicles in doubt.

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Several new US-built minipickups are due to reach the showroom over the next year as the domestic manufacturers drop the imports for their own designs.

General Motors and Chrysler will be on the road first with new entries next fall, GM with its new S-10 (a rear-drive model to be sold by Chevrolet and GMC), and Chrysler with its 110 front-drive minitruck. Ford Motor Company will follow in early 1982 with its new rear-drive, light-light Ranger, followed a year later by a four-wheel-drive.

The Japanese have held the growing minitruck market all to themselves with the exception of the Volkswagen Rabbit-derived truck which is built in Westmoreland, Pa., near Pittsburgh, along with the US-adapted Rabbit sedans.

The future market looks so good to the Japanese that Nissan, under sharp pressure in the US, will open a new $550 million Datsun truck-assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville, in 1983. Honda may follow with a minitruck model at its Marysville, Ohio, assembly facility where it will start building cars within two years.

Forcing the hand of the Japanese is the 25 percent tariff now imposed on the imported minitrucks, a reaction to the steeply rising sales of Japanese vehicles in the US.

A minimal 4 percent tariff had long been levied on pickup trucks which were shipped without the cargo boxes installed. Toyota, in fact, builds its US-market pickup boxes at a plant in Long Beach, Calif. To qualify for the 4 percent tariff, the cargo boxes were attached to the chassis at the port of entry and then the completed vehicles were shipped to dealers from coast to coast.

Sharp negative reaction to the high level of Japanese vehicle sales in the US , plus the devastating impact of steep worker layoffs in the US auto industry, prodded the US government to clamp the full tariff, long winked at, on the super-lightweight trucks.

Fuel-economy standards for two-wheel- drive light trucks are required to average 18 miles per gallon in 1982, 19.5 in 1983, 20.3 in 1984, and 21.6 in 1985.

Four-wheel-drive fuel standards start out at 16 m.p.g. in 1982, 17.5 in '83, 18.5 in '84, and 19 in '85.

All the manufacturers, including American Motors with its Jeep, plan to sharply reduce the weight and thus improve the fuel mileage of their four-wheel-drive utility vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Bronco, and Dodge Ramcharger.

Without the sharply higher-mileage minitrucks, US carmakers would be in trouble with their lower-mileage, full-size pickup trucks.

Ford Motor Company in 1980 sold 77,375 Courier minitrucks, imported from Toyo Kogyo, Japanese maker of the Mazda, while GM sold 88,447 Isuzu-built LUV minitrucks through its Chevrolet dealerships and Chrysler marketed 18,416 Mitsubishi-built Plymouth Arrow minipickups and 44,640 Ram 50s through its Dodge dealerships.

At the same time, Toyota delivered 131,648 minitrucks, Datsun 111,252, and Mazda 8,782.

Meanwhile, US motorists continue to view both Japanese and West German vehicles as more reliable and of higher quality than cars built in the US, reports a study by the US department of Transportation.

At the same time, the study said that many drivers criticize the overall crash protection of the small foreign imports as well as the cost of repairs and the availability of parts.

"The most dominant factors in the purchase decision appear to have been the improved value, engineering, and reputation of Japanese goods compared to those from the US," according to the report.

The rush of new cars from Detroit, such as the GM J-car which came out in May , are aimed at doing something about it.

The Japanese not long ago opted to restrain car exports to the US for the next two years although the impact on the market-place is in some doubt.

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