Automakers court indulgent buyer

Automobile commercials sometimes are a fun-house-mirror reflection of the American psyche.

In the midst of the economic crisis in the Mideast oil fields, TV viewers were treated to 30-second spots of small cars coasting farther than their competition before running out of precious gasoline.

More recently, with the economy even dryer than gas tanks were in 1974, hard cash rebates have been the issue.

Clearly the good deal dominates.

So what is the portent of Volkswagen of America's latest sales pitch: a VW roaring airborne toward the viewer, eventually landing and executing a seemingly impossible series of twists and turns, capped with a close-up of the self-satisfied driver ecstatic over the experience?

The hot-rod images coming from the people who brought us the beetle is slightly discomforting. Volkswagen, after all, was the car that led us through the energy crisis.

But today the US is swimming in oil and Volkswagen's former energy-efficient image has been despoiled by a 38 percent drop in sales of its once-popular Rabbit model.

The flying Volkswagen is the company's way of tempting today's car buyer with the car's performance potential - a verboten subject during the energy and cash crisis.

Volkswagen is hardly alone. After years of emphasizing fuel efficiency, downsizing, and practicality, automakers are again pushing performance.

It's hardly a throwback to the horsepower race that characterized the mid- 1950s and 1960s, when outrageous machines, nicknamed ''muscle cars,'' pushed engine size to extremes. The new crop of performance hardware has more of a European flair, with an equal emphasis on cornering, braking, and, of course, acceleration.

It's partly a reaction to the years spent redesigning the basic American automobile into a smaller, fuel-efficient car. In the minds of automotive enthusiasts, that also meant dull.

Detroit's marketing experts are arguing that the ''baby boomers'' just now are reaching the peak-earnings years of 24 to 37 years old. It's a mildly self-indulgent group that frequently has two incomes per household.

At least some of the young and affluent are demanding something more than basic transportation.

Reinforcing this view is the recent success of General Motor's sporty Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird models, which now account for about 5 percent of all American cars sold.

Not everyone agrees that this is a desirable trend. The world's oil supply is still limited. With interest rates pushing already-high car prices to stratospheric levels, critics say the need for even more basic transportation - or better public transportation - is far greater than the need for automobiles that gratify the ego.

In fact, concern over gasoline prices and availability has permanently altered the definition of performance. In the past, the huge V-8 engines that powered so-called muscle cars were costly, both at the dealership and at the gas pump.

But technological advances in auto design have improved the mileage of all cars to the point where even the largest aren't anything like the gas hogs of the early 1970s.

Today's generation of performance cars mainly are extensions of advances already well-entrenched in auto designers' thinking - small engines, lighter weight, and sophisticated technology, such as diesel engines and turbocharging. The result is that today's minimuscle car can pull off the neat trick of burning its small-size tires with less gas than the economy cars used a decade ago.

A typical evolution is demonstrated by Chrysler Corporation, which introduced the first small, US-built front-wheel-drive car in 1977, the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. It quickly followed with a 2-door sport version, the O-24 and TC-3. In 1981 it modified the 2-door with a stiffer suspension and revived the name Charger.

Then, for 1983, a higher-horsepower engine and 5-speed transmission completes the metamorphosis.

Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen have all followed similar programs, and the result is that in 1983 all will be offering small cars that have special handling and engine packages - but still get mileage in the 40-m.p.g. range.

Cars are being offered today that seem to provide driving fun without the compromise or guilt of high fuel consumption. But even this achievement may well offend those who prefer a car that exudes a quiet statement of sensibility.

Then again, 1983 also is the year of the convertible. With new ragtops coming from Chryler, Ford, and General Motors, you don't have to go fast to be self-indulgent.

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