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Imports 1982; Japanese and European manufacturers keep pressure on Detroit with New Cars

By Maynard M. GordonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1981


Imported cars remain formidable competitors for US automakers despite Japan's agreement last May to reduce shipments to the US by nearly 8 percent in the current fiscal year from 1,820,000 to 1,680,000.

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The top three importers - Toyota, Nissan (Datsun), and Honda -- are all introducing sharply restyled compacts this fall in an effort to recoup volume reductions among the lowest-priced subcompacts.

Toyota, meanwhile, has served notice of an average price increase of 7.5 percent on 1982 models in what is shaping up as an importwide trend to maximize revenues as US volume recedes.

Unaffected by the government-ordered constraints on Japan's car exports to the US (and Canada, too), European producers of so-called upscale cars are reaping a record harvest among American buyers this year.

All-time highs for US sales in the first eight months of 1981 were notched by Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Peugeot. The newest import, the Irish-built De Lorean car, jumped off to sold-out demand among its 340 US dealers. Alfa Romeo's new GTV-6 coupe was also an early hit.

Exporters of lower-priced cars to the US from Europe did not fare as well this year, however. Britain's Jaguar, Rover, Triumph dropped MG and Triumph sportsters as well as Rover sedan shipments to the US and decided to concentrate on the top-of-the-line Jaguar range.

Fiat discontinued its Brava sedan traffic and confirmed a report that its Strada series might follow suit. This would confine its efforts to the sporty entries only, the X 1/9 and Spider 2000.

An admitted 1981 disappointment sales-wise were the Renault models sold through American Motors dealers - Le Car and the 18i. But Renault, now a 46.4 percent owner of AMC, expects a big lift in 1982 when an Americanized edition of its new R-9 subcompact goes into production at the AMC plant in Kenosha, Wis., on the heels of its introduction of a sporty coupe import called the Fuego.

Another major European-based company, which is planning both new models and a new American plant next year, is Volkswagen. VW will replace the bigger-than-Rabbit-sized Scirocco with a redesigned car for 1982 while its Dasher will give way to the new Quantum.

A second Rabbit assembly plant, joining the 31/2-year-old facility at New Stanton, Pa., is scheduled to open next summer in Sterling Heights, Mich., northeast of Detroit.

Japan's Honda is slated to be the third import to go ''domestic'' in 1982 with a US assembly plant. The Honda plant at an existing motorcycle assembly location in Marysville, Ohio, will build the all-new Accord being unveiled this fall.

Nissan is erecting a pickup truck and engine plant at Smyrna, Tenn., for startup in 1983.

Just ahead of the imposition of voluntary restraints on Japanese shipments to the US, Isuzu became Japan's seventh vehicle exporter to the bountiful American market. Diesel and gasoline cars and trucks from Isuzu went on sale in 22 Western and Southern states last February; and subsequently Mitsubishi Motors also announced plans to establish its own US importing organization separate from its long-established connection with Chrysler Corporation.

With all US automakers struggling through a deep and still unabating sales recession, 1981 has brought more forging of closer links among the Western world's producers than ever before.