Good things in small packages. Inexpensive '87 autos offer style, performance, and extras

If you think the low-priced car disappeared in the 1970's, along with low-priced gasoline, think again. Low-cost fuel is back, and so is the bargain basement new car. Volkswagen, which pioneered the high-quality, low-price car with the beetle in the 1950s, now is hoping for an encore.

The West German carmaker will soon introduce the Fox, built by VW's subsidiary in Brazil and ``targeted to compete with cars currently priced under $6,000,'' according to James Fuller, head of Volkswagen United States. The German-engineered Fox, which revives a name once used by Audi, will be sold as two- and four-door notchback sedans and later in a three-door wagon.

Which goes to show you can still get a combination of style, safety, and satisfaction at your price.

One of the best buys around is built by Chrysler Corporation.

The base price of the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon America was slashed last summer, amid a burst of advertising hoopla, to under $5,500, but for 1987 it has gone up by $300. The cars are still a bargain at $5,799, plus extras. To be sure, what you're getting is not the last word in automotive technology or style, but a good, solid buy in four-wheel transportation.

The front-wheel-drive Omni was introduced in the fall of 1977. I drove one from coast to coast and, I remember, was impressed with the car. It's dependable basic transportation without frills.

You can also get a base-model Ford Escort Pony for under $6,586, but it doesn't even have an inexpensive radio. The average out-the-door price of an Escort is closer to $8,000, according to one car dealer.

The South Korean Hyundai Excel, with Mitsubishi engine and transmission, and as of now available in only 31 states, is one of the best bargains on any automotive row.

Introduced only a year ago, the car became the best first-year seller of any import in history, with at least 150,000 of them going out the showroom door. Designed by Italy's Giorgetto Giugiaro, who did the VW Rabbit, all the Peugeots for the past 30 years, and a bevy of other cars on several continents, the Excel has an array of standard-fare niceties which cars in this price range rarely include.

And besides all this, it has the lowest base price of any car ($4,995), with the exception of the bare-bones, Yugoslavian-built Yugo. Obviously, you can boost the bill to $8,000 and more with options.

Hyundai's long-range goal is to completely divorce itself from Mitsubishi which owns 15 percent of the South Korean automaker.

When I ask people what car they'd like to buy, I often get the reply: ``A Honda Accord.'' Well, the dependable Accord is hardly a low-priced car these days, but the Honda Civic hatchback, with its 1.3-liter engine, does fit the bill at under $6,000. Despite its small dimensions, the Civic has a lot of room for luggage and people, and the performance is noteworthy despite its small engine.

Nissan offers the Sentra for a mite over $6,000 in basic format. With a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, the Sentra gives high fuel economy, a good feel, and high quality in a low-cost package.

The front-wheel-drive Toyota Tercel two-door hatchback sells for $5898. It has a 1.5-liter, 12-valve engine for '87, assuring a sharp increase in performance over '86.

Mazda's two-door hatchback 323 is right up to date in current styling practice.

Starting at $6,099, it's equipped with an 80-h.p., four-cylinder engine, has especially quick pickup, and should give around 30 miles to a gallon on the highway.

Chrysler markets the 12-valve, four-cylinder Dodge and Plymouth Colt, built by Mitsubishi. The Mitsubishi-sold Mirage with four-speed manual starts at $5,969.

If it's high mileage you want, the Suzuki-built Chevrolet Sprint is a combination of super-perky performance and super-high mileage in a small space. It even offers a turbo version for 1987.

Listed at $5,800, the Sprint weighs a bare 1,500 pounds and, unlike its competitors, carries a threecylinder, one-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. The get-up-and-go nature of the Sprint will surprise you if you haven't yet sat behind the driver's wheel.

Subaru offers a two-door hatchback with a 1.6-liter, four-speed manual transmission for the budget-conscious car buyer. But don't expect carpeting in this base-level hatchback, which sells for $5,398. Would you settle for rubber floor mats? Subaru will soon import the Justy, a three-cylinder minicar, which also will fall in the category of super-low-cost transportation.

Malcolm Bricklin, who brought the Yugoslavian Yugo into the United States a year ago, will introduce the Malaysian-built Proton Saga in early 1988. The Yugo is an adaptation of an old Fiat car, while the Proton Saga is essentially a Mitsubishi - but so are the Hyundai Excel and the Dodge and Plymouth Colt.

One point about the low end of the automotive market: It's getting more and more crowded and there's no end in sight. That, of course, is good news for the car buyer. Carmakers recognize the market for low-cost transportation and are responding to that demand.

So what if the average cost of an American car these days is over $12,000! There are lots of new car bargains around for under $7,000, or even for under $6,000, including some of the goodies that may be expected on the higher-priced buggies - and we're talking about new cars, not used cars with tens of thousands of miles on the odometer.

A low-cost new car needn't imply a dissatisfied owner. Hyundai reports that 96 percent of its buyers are satisfied with their car while 86 percent are happy with the dealer.

Look at it this way: They're not cheap cars, but smart buys.

These are recommended retail prices. The availability of base models may vary from dealer to dealer.

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