Wave of mini-cars from abroad heads for US showrooms. They're a bit short on amenities but long on value, fuel economy

The auto industry is going big in a small way. Despite the decline in fuel prices and the resurgence of gas-guzzling V-8s, the hottest trend in the auto industry this year is the mini-car. And whether it comes from South Korea or Brazil, Japan or Yugoslavia, industry leaders believe these pint-size imports could be among the hottest sellers in the new-car market by 1990.

The first mini, the Japanese-made Chevrolet Sprint, had its debut barely two years ago, but by the end of this year, there will be more than half a dozen others on the market. These include at least two South Korean mini-cars, the Hyundai Excel and Pontiac Le Mans; the Japanese-made Subaru Justy; the Brazilian-built Volkswagen Fox; and the Yugoslav Yugo.

At $3,995, the Yugo is the lowest-priced new car in America, but stripped-down versions of all the new mini-cars can be had for less than $6,000, a key selling point. Another plus is fuel economy. With engines as small as 1.3 liters and only 3 cylinders, some minis deliver about 60 miles a gallon on the highway.

Of course, there are some trade-offs. Those tiny engines are not exactly tire-burners. The VW Fox is one of the fastest among the tiny bunch, with 0-to-50 acceleration of a modest 8 seconds. Some of the others, however, take as much as 15 seconds to get up to highway speeds.

And mini-cars are just that: By definition, they are less than 150 inches in total length, a good 10 feet shorter than some luxury cars.

So far, sales have surpassed everyone's expectations. Hyundai executives predicted first-year sales would total about 100,000. They topped 168,000, and are expected to reach a quarter-million this year. Estimates call for total mini-car sales to grow to anywhere from 500,000 to as much as 2 million a year by the early 1990s.

During a Chicago news conference introducing their new Fiesta, Ford officials predicted mini-cars could capture 40 percent of the small-car market by 1990. ``The potential for new cars in that price range is substantial,'' says Ford vice-president Louis Lataif. ``The question is, where will those sales come from?''

Mr. Lataif and many other industry leaders believe that rather than drawing sales from the existing new-car market, minis will rob the used-car market, where ``there are three times more used-car sales than new each year.''

Finding new new-car buyers is important for mini-car manufacturers and distributors, because if they wind up pirating sales from their more expensive models, they could seriously trim their own profits. With most list prices starting under $6,000 for stripped-down versions (if you can actually find stripped-down versions), per-car earnings are clearly negligible.

Who is going to buy a mini? ``We're going after two types of buyers,'' says Dave Sippel, Subaru's vice-president of marketing. One group is made up of ``families who have need of another car,'' which they might take to the bus depot or train station before commuting to work.

An even larger potential audience, he says, is made up of ``young entry-level buyers,'' usually in their 20s, with incomes less than $30,000.

By offering these buyers affordable transportation, Subaru and the other mini-car marketers hope to win their loyalty - and future purchases, once these young buyers are ready for larger, more profitable models.

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