US car builders tool up to stem the tide of imports

Five years ago, there were 7 million imported cars running on US highways. Today, there are more than 16 million -- a fantastic rate of growth by almost any standard.

Imports, in fact, have been taking about 30 percent of the US car market this year, a painful reality for Detroit. It is also painful for the domestic automakers to realize that in the first half of the year Japan again built more cars than the US. The margin was slight, but the loss of first place for the second six-month period in a row could not be denied.

Against this background, the Ford Motor Company and the United Automobile Workers are striking back with a petition to the International Trade Commission for temporary quotas on imports. A Ford suit before the ITC, which is not expected to act until after the November election, calls for quotas based on 1976 import car sales of about 1.7 million units, compared with a record 2,325, 000 last year and an estimated 2.5 million for calendar 1980.

But neither the domestic companies nor the imports are sitting quietly by awaiting the uncertain outcome of the case for revived "protectionism" in Washington.

In Detroit, responses are taking two forms: (1) Meet the invaders head-on with fuel-frugal competitors and (2) "join 'em if they're here to stay."

The 1981-model Chrysler Aries/Reliant K-cars, ford's escort/Lynx, and American Motors 4-wheel-drive Eagle SX/4 -- to be followed next May by the Chevrolet/Pontiac J- car -- are all designed to challenge the undenied advantages claimed by cars from Japan and Europe.

At the same time, each domestic automaker is forging product links with overseas-based companies to strengthen its present and future marketing and production postions.

American Motors has begun import of a second car line from France's Renault, which in 1979 purchased a 5 percent equity in the US company with options now to acquire up to 46 percent of the stock. The Renault 181 compact joins the Le Car (R-5) subcompact at AMC dealerships and the partners plan to build an all-new front-wheel-drive subcompact at AMC's Kenosha, Wis., plant starting in 1982.

Chrysler Corporation, which has equities in Japan's Mitsubishi Motors And France's PSA Peugeot-Citroen, is continuing to import cars and engines from Mitsubishi and negotiating with Peugeot for diesel engines and for a possible joint-venture car-manufacturing project parelleling that of AMC and Renault.

Although the spearheaded of the move t impose quotas on import shipments, Ford has begun discussions with Toyota on a Toyota suggestion that a small car developed by the large Japanese company be built in the US. Ford also is importing manual-transmission transaxles for its new Escort/Lynx subcompacts from its Japanese partner, Toyo Kogyo, builder of the Mazda automobile and light truck.

Finally, giant General Motors has expanded its purchases from Japanese ally Isuzu. A minimum of 7,000 Isuzu-built diesel engines will be offered as options on 1981-model Chevrolet Chevette subcompacts, and Isuzu also will provide transmissions for the new J-cars coming next spring to Chevrolet and Pontiac as replacements for the Monza and Sunbird.

US manufacturing of cars made abroad will be a fast- growing phenomenon in the 1980s. Volkswagen started the movement in the spring of 1979 with opening of the Rabbit assembly plant near Pittsburgh, to be followed by a second VW plant northeast of Detroit in 1982.

Honda is looking at 1982 for kickoff of its new plant at Marysville, Ohio, where a new Accord will be assembled. The AMC/Renault project for Kenosha would be the third such unveiling in the same year, and later Chrysler would like to build a Peugeot-conceived car if its financing problems can be resolved.

For their part, the imports are looking for new market segments in which to challenge the domestic automakers, now that they have all but overwhelmed the Americans in the economy-car arena.

Japanese executives have conceded that the arrival of "viable" US junior cars in the 1981-model year with the popular front-wheel drive and miserly 4-cylinder engines could have an impact on their own cars.

Therefore, the Japanese not only are shoring up their so- called "econobox" models but adding restyled entries in top- of-the-line compact sedan series, such as the Toyota Cressida and Datsun 810.

The Europeans also are broadening their offerings where their US market strength has held up -- in high-priced sedans and sports coupes.

This past spring, a year after GM sprang its X-car compacts with front-wheel drive and economical engines on a receptive market, five new compacts arrived from Europe by way of dramatizing the imports' bid to penetrate the "upscale" domain. These included the Rover 3500 from Britain, Audi 500 Turbo and VW Jetta from West Germany, Peugeot 505 from France, and the Volvo diesel from Sweden.

In addition, Britain's BL Ltd. introduced Americans to the Triump TR-8 and Audi tossed in a 5-cylinder engine option on the Audi 400 -- the former as a V-8 version of the wedge- shaped TR-7 two-seater and the latter an extra-power feature to accomodate automatic-transmission buyers.

The Renault 18i, base-priced from $7,398 to $8,358, inaugurates a 1981-model season which will bring still more emphasis on family-sized cars from abroad. Saab will add a 4-door sedan to the 900 Turbo line. VW is replacing the Dasher with a sleeker and longer edition. The top-of-the-line Mercedes 450 is giving way to a restyled 500 series and a Mercedes engine exclusive, the turbocharged diesel engine, is coming to the Audi 5000 and Peugeot 604 in 1981 and to BMW in 1982.

The new and carryover imports, much as '81 domestic cars, are not checking in at '80-model prices. the $4,000 base econobox became a memory in July when Nissan, Toyota, AMC/Renault, Mazda, and Chrysler all boosted suggested prices on closeout 1980-model cars. They were joined in the upward price trend, in which several of the Japanese have boosted sticker prices three times already this year, by Volvo, and indications are for another across-the-board advance with the launch of the '81 models this fall are strong.

Toyota and Mazda have introduced two all-new subcompacts -- the Starlet and a front-wheel-drive GLC, respectively.

The three-door Starlet, which went on sale in Japan in 1978, is a rear-wheel-drive model by contrast with the Tercel, which joined the Toyota import list last fall. The Starlet is powered by a 1.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine (the same base engine in Ford's new Escort/Lynx) and, at about $3,600, is the lowest-priced US car. It has a 90.5-inch wheelbase and has a bumper-to-bumper length of 150.3 inches, making it slightly larger than the Honda Civic.

For the GLC, Mazda fashioned a thorough overhaul. Overall length over the new front-drive platform is 157 inches. Wheelbase is 93.1 inches. These are 1. 3-liter and 1.5-liter 4- cylinder engines for three-door and five-door hatchbacks, plus 4-speed or 5-speed manual transmissions and a new strut-type suspension.

Called the Cresta at home, the new Toyota Cressida at the upper end of the line is lighter than its US predecessor and offers a fuel-injected 2.6-liter, 6 -cylinder engine with Toyota's 4-speed overdrive automatic transmission as standard equipment.

(GM is introducing its own automatic overdrive transmission this fall on all regular-size cars except those of Cadillac. The only other cars with this transmission, which automatically shift into an overdrive gear, are Ford and Mercedes-Benz.)

Not to be outdone by its archrival, Toyota, Datsun is redesigning its top-line 810 6-cylinder entry and considering exporting its newest luxury sedan from home -- the Leopard or 910.

The Datsun 210 price leader will get rectangular headlamps and the front-drive 310 a new grille.

Honda has postponed plans to export its 5-door Quint sedan to the US until late 1981. Instead, there'll be a 5-door Civic this fall, dual rectangular headlamps for the Accord, and a new rear-end treatment and instrument panel for the Prelude 2-door coupe.

Mitsibishi plans facelifts for the Sapporo and Challenger coupes which use the 2.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine now optional on the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant K-cars.

Subaru, the only importer with 4-wheel-drive cars, completely revised its lineup for 1980 and is standing pat for 1981 with the possible addition of 4 -door sedan to the 4-wheel-drive line, which now includes a station wagon, hatchback coupe, and the BRAT utility pickup.

Futher, there will be a 1981 addition to the Japanese list -- Isuzu, which hitherto has built the Chevrolet LUV pickup and the Chevette-like Opel which GM no longer imports.

Isuzu has formed a US marketing organization to sell its diesel and gasoline Gemini and Rodeo cars and trucks, to be called the IMark and P'UP, respectively.

Diesel-engine availability will expand throughout the imports, what with the launch of the Isuzu operation as the first diesel cars from Japan and plans for expanded sales in the US of the new Volvo diesel and diesel-engine editions of the Peugeot 505, Audi 5000, and VW Dasher.

Possibly at midyear the Fiat 131 and Strada, Datsun 810, and Renault 181 will become dieselized in the US, too.

Volvo's new diesel engine is built by VW and stands as the only 6-cylinder diesel engine sold on the US market. The top-of-the-line Volvo GLE sedan and wagon were revamped for the new power plant, which is rated at 27 miles per gallon in the city with automatic transmission and 38 on the highway with 4 -speed manual with overdrive.

Suggested prices for the Volvo diesel are in the $12,500 range.

Volkswagen introduced four new models during the 1980-model run -- the imported Rabbit convertible and US-built pickup truck, the imported Vanagon van/camper, and finally, the German-built notchback edition of the Rabbit called the Jetta.

All of the new 1980-model VWs come with gasoline engines only. The VW plant in Pennsylvania began diesel-engine Rabbit output and also started the Rabbit pickup with either a gasoline engine or diesel.

VW's Audi division took the opportunity of the new 5000 Turbo introduction to revamp the line-topper sedan. The 5000 Turbo now is Audi's new US flagship, joining in upscale competition with the new Rover 3500 V-8 sedan and Peugeot 505 .

Rover has been reborn as a US import after a five-year absence, offering a commodious 5-door haatchback sedan which was designated Europe's "car of the year" in 1976. The crisply styled Peugeot 505 replaces the 504 in sedan and wagon versions with 4-cylinder, fuel-injected gasoline and diesel engines.

Italy's two major automakers also have announced tentative plans to upscale for the US. The 131 Brave engine option will be expanded and shipments of the stylish Lancia Zagato increased by Fiat. Alfa Romeo will introduce its $20,000 6-cylinder sedan, called the Alfa Six.

As for import sales in 1981, domestic executive are cautiously optimistic that the projected 2.5 million import-car rate of this year will be edged back by the made-in-Detroit array of new compacts and subcompacts with front-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive.

But unless Washington clamps down with arbitrary quotas, the importers themselves remain convinced that those 16 million American car owners represent a contented constituency who will help keep their US sales above 2 million cars a year for a long time to come.

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