Autos '87. Intense competition between companies worldwide has put today's car buyer in the driver's seat

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TALK about an automotive revolution! The competitive pressure builds and the cast of players gets more and more complex. What used to be the Big Three -- General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler -- now has become the Big 30 as more and more imports surge into the country, new auto plants are built (but this time not only by Detroit), and buyers sweep up the cars no matter what their origin or the nameplate on the hood.

Not since the early days of the automobile has the car-sales pie been split among so many cooks.

Will Chrysler import a minicar produced by Nissan's Taiwanese affiliate, or maybe even from Malaysia?

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After South Korea's success, how many more countries will send cars into the US market?

How about cars from Bangladesh or Nepal? Both countries are in the early stages of setting up assembly plants, Automotive News reports.

Where will new plants be built?

Just how competitive are United States automakers, anyway?

With all this going on, car buyers themselves are the winners. Automakers worldwide are battling fender to fender, offering high-tech engineering; improved performance, safety, and comfort; and innovative styling in an effort to succeed in a difficult marketplace.

The range of new models runs from no-frills, basic cars, such as the Yugoslav-built Yugo (under $4,500 out the door), to super-luxury dreamboats. Safety is getting new attention as more automakers offer antilock braking and air bags or automatic seat belts. Electronic legerdemain abounds, amid moves to define individual models more sharply in customers' minds. Even the dealer's after-sale maintenance and repair services are being used as a sales tool.

In a risky yet successful display of innovative design, Ford Motor Company rolled out the ``aero look'' Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable nearly a year ago, at a cost of more than $3 billion. Now General Motors is planning to launch two Chevrolet exclusives, the Corsica and Beretta, heavily influenced by the ``aero look'' as well.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best-selling vehicle in the United States today is not a car at all, but Ford's full-size pickup truck. Ford, which claims between 18 and 19 percent of the US car business and 28 percent of the truck market, may soon produce more pickups than cars. Minivans (led by Chrysler's two hot sellers, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager), sports cars, all-wheel drive, multivalve engines, turbos, superchargers, use of composites, more convertibles and other open-top cars -- all are responses to the tough competition in the industry as the automobile rolls into its second century.

Here are some of the highlights as the 1987 models of (mostly) American cars move out of dealer showrooms and onto the road (see story on Page B6 for a roundup of 1987 import cars): GENERAL MOTORS Chevrolet

GM's largest car division is marking time until after the first of the year, when its all-new Corsica sedan and Beretta coupe hit the road. Chevrolet will be the only GM division to sell them.

``Refinements'' is the way Chevrolet officials describe the changes for 1987. The base engine in the Camaro sports coupe is the 2.6-liter V-6, while the 5-liter high-output V-8 and the L-4 engines are dropped. The high-tech Camaro Berlinetta is gone, but the first Camaro convertible since 1969 joins the fray early in the new year. Among the engineering updates, the Caprice, Celebrity, and Corvette get friction-cutting roller valve lifters. The durable yet aging Chevette subcompact is in its final year.

Both the Suzuki-built Sprint and Isuzu Spectrum will get a performance boost from a turbo-power option early next year. Pontiac

Pontiac has a brand-new star. The Bonneville has been redesigned as a sporty-looking, front-drive, full-size sedan with rakish lines and a low-profile front end. It's powered by a cross-mounted, fuel-injected, 3.8-liter V-6. The new 4-door Bonneville replaces the rear-drive Parisienne and nudges out the 6000 STE as the flagship of the Pontiac fleet. The wheelbase of the new Bonneville is 110.8 inches. The '86 midsize Bonneville is dropped.

The new car in the Firebird line is the GTA, an option package for the Trans Am powered by the Chevrolet Corvette's 5.7-liter, tuned-port-injected V-8. A high-performance suspension package is standard. With 210 horsepower, the GTA snaps from zero to 60 miles per hour in a meager 6.5 seconds.

In 1987, Pontiac will resurrect its venerable LeMans nameplate for a new subcompact now being built in an enlarged, modernized $425 million assembly plant in Pupyong, South Korea. A joint venture between GM and South Korea's Daewoo Heavy Industries, the front-drive LeMans is based on the West German-built Opel Kadett. The LeMans uses a 1.5-liter engine with highway m.p.g. in the high 50s. Pontiac engineers have made transmission and engine changes as well. A new high-performance, 5-speed manual transmission is available on some models, including the new Bonneville, Grand Am, and Fiero.

The '87 Grand Am has changed to analog dial instrument clusters. Fuel-tank capacity in the refined Fiero climbs from 10 to 12 gallons.

The Safari name is used on several of the division's station wagons. Oldsmobile

There are no horn-tooting changes at Oldsmobile. Coming up at midyear is a new Olds 98 Touring Sedan that twins a luxury ride with the handling and performance of a sporty car. It will have the first floor-mounted automatic transmission shifter in Oldsmobile history.

Also preparing for a midyear introduction is the Trofeo, a high-performance version of the front-drive Toronado.

Calais gets a new GT Sedan, better suspension, and passive-restraint seat belts. The Cutlass Ciera has a new brougham wagon. Buick

The news from GM's upscale car division is a T-Type Le Sabre with 3.7-liter V-6 power and a 4-speed automatic transmission. Buick's sporty T-Types are only available in the LeSabre, Riviera, and Electra models. Even so, Buick is providing special ``touring packages'' in lieu of some of the T-Types.

The Riviera, redesigned a year ago, is unchanged, while the Electra Limited coupe is scrapped. The hottest Buick by far is the Regal Grand National, a swift bullet on any road.

Both Buick and Oldsmobile are searching for clearly defined identities to make their cars stand out from the rest of the GM line. Pontiac has forged ahead on that score by creating a sporty, high-performance image. Cadillac

The ultra-luxurious Allant'e, a convertible with both a hard and soft top, takes over the No. 1 spot in the GM garage. The $50,000 car, built by Pininfarina in Italy, is a marvel of electronic sophistication.

The Allante body is flown from Italy to Detroit, where the suspension and power train are installed in GM's newest assembly plant. To ensure lap-of-luxury comfort for the riders, the leather seats, made by Recaro, offer 10-way electronic adjustment and memory. A 4.1-liter V-8, which calls for super-unleaded fuel, powers the Allante, while a heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission does the shifting. Cadillac expects to sell 6,000 to 7,000 of these Italian-American luxury cars.

Elsewhere, the Fleetwood d'Elegance becomes a separate model. A special version of the car, the Fleetwood Sixty Special, provides a longer wheelbase and adds five inches to the back-seat room.

The Eldorado and Seville, all new a year ago, are essentially unchanged. The Eldorado has been beset all year with production problems at GM's new Hamtramck plant, where the Allante body, engine, and suspension will come together. FORD MOTOR COMPANY Lincoln-Mercury-Merkur

The Lincoln-Mercury division revises the ``Cougar look'' and adds an optional all-wheel-drive system for the Topaz, twin to the Ford Tempo. The 1.9-liter engine in the subcompact Lynx now has electronic fuel injection.

The luxurious and popular Lincoln Town Car is moving smartly ahead, offering a special version to mark the America's Cup sailing competition coming up in Fremantle, Western Australia.

The West German-built Merkur (``Mair-KOOR'') sports sedan gets larger 15-inch wheels and Pirelli tires. Later in the model year the division will introduce a four-door Merkur Scorpio boasting European-style roadability and antilock brakes. Ford

The Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and Mustang GT are significantly restyled for '87, with both boasting more power. A new Thunderbird Sport model lists a handling suspension and Ford's 5-liter EFI V-8 engine. The standard T-Bird uses a 3.8-liter EFI V-6.

The hot-selling Ford Taurus still leads the company parade, while the compact Tempo gets optional on-demand all-wheel drive. The Tempo also offers a driver-side air bag, an option that has yet to catch on. The cost? $800.

The durable Escort rolls merrily along, for four years the best-selling nameplate in the world. Electronic fuel injection is added to the car's 1.9-liter engine. In December the Escort is expected to add automatic (motorized) shoulder safety belts for the driver and front passenger.

Ford also launches a new F-Series pickup and 4x2 Bronco II in '87. CHRYSLER

Chrysler Corporation is the big winner as far as new models for the 1987 model year. It introduces the Plymouth Sundance/Dodge Shadow, a new five-passenger compact, and a midsize pickup, the Dakota (no one else has a light truck this size, Chrysler executives claim). Next spring it will unveil a $30,000 convertible built in Italy by Maserati, plus a new coupe and convertible in its luxurious Le Baron line.

The Sundance/Shadow twins are upscale models aimed at the youth market. With a 97-inch wheelbase, they come with either 2 or 4 doors and with a choice of Chrysler's fuel-injected 2.2-liter ``4'' or optional 2.2 turbo. The transmission is either a 3-speed automatic or 5-speed manual. A 4-speed automatic and a convertible are still down the pike.

Explaining the carmaker's lack of a 4-speed automatic, Chrysler Corporation vice-chairman Bennett E. Bidwell says, ``We got a little out of bed in some power trains, but we got ahead in other things, such as 4-cylinder engines and turbocharging.''

Due next spring is a longer (14.6 inches) version of the hot-selling Chrysler minivans, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

Chrysler is bullish on pickup trucks following the launch of its midsize Dakota. The company won't have a replacement for its full-size pickup before 1989 ``at the earliest,'' according to Mr. Bidwell. AMERICAN MOTORS/RENAULT

The Renault GTA, a swift sport version of the Alliance, is taking aim at the performance market. A new 2-liter, high-output engine teams with a five-speed, close-ratio manual transaxle and sport suspension. The GTA, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design, is trying to upgrade the marque. The GTA's overhead-cam engine uses throttle-body fuel injection and zips from zero to 60 m.p.h. in under 10 seconds.

The company bids goodbye to the Encore name, but not the hatchback itself. It becomes another Alliance model for '87. The four-wheel-drive Eagle remains in both station wagon and sedan versions.

In the early months of '87 AMC will import the Medallion, a compact Renault, in both sedan and wagon form, followed by the rear-drive Alpine, with a fiber glass body and turbocharged V-6.

The first car out of AMC's new Ontario plant, the midsize Premier sedan, won't reach the road until the '88-model year.

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