''It's like a long-running soap opera,'' a veteran Detroit automan said the other day. No longer putting out a parade of new models in the fall, plus a few face-lifts and maybe a new car or two in the spring, the General Motors Chevrolet division is launching its new-model vehicles, not once, not twice, but five times over the next few months.
Caprice and Impala, plus Monte Carlo and Malibu, the Blazer, Suburban vans, and light trucks, came out in September. Then GM will introduce its new mini-size pickup truck in November, while Ford Motor Company will not field its own minitruck, the Ranger, till midyear as a 1983 model.
The Corvette, Citation, and Chevette won't bow till November. The new front-drive A-body midsize car, Celebrity, reaches the showrooms in January, along with the new S-car, Camaro.
Buick put its Regal, LeSabre, Electra, and Riviera on the road late last month, but won't show off its '82-model Skylark till mid-November, while the all-new, front-drive Century and a Riviera T-type coupe will debut sometime after the first of the year.
Chrysler launched the bulk of its new cars Oct. 1 and will follow up with an Oct. 29 unveiling for the new high-luxury, front-drive Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400.
Thus, no longer tied to a massive new-model-year launching in the fall, Detroit carmakers are now holding their new-car unveilings whenever the new steel is ready. It points up the dimensions of the shift in the automobile market. What it shows is the impact of high costs on the car industry as it maneuvers and delays its new-car programs to adjust to the flow of funds, or lack of flow, into the purse.
Ford bounced its new-car message off a communications satellite through a nationwide ''press conference'' in more than a dozen cities from coast to coast Sept. 17, following in the track of the successful satellite launch of the Ford EXP and Mercury LN-7 earlier in the year.
No matter when the new cars are shown, the idea is to fan consumer interest over a 12-month period and not rely on a single big bash in the fall.
Also, because of the sharp cutbacks in people, especially engineers and designers, and the mammoth cost of revamping the entire output, not once but two and three times over less than a decade, at a projected cost of $70 billion to $ 80 billion, the US industry is being forced to delay some of the work so that other jobs can be done.
Before it's all through, however, US carmakers will have introduced more than a dozen brand-new cars for 1982, all designed to draw business away from the imports and back to Detroit.
In summary, here's what's going on in the domestics for 1982:
General Motors; GM has almost nothing new in the customary new-car launching this fall. Come January, however, it expects to bring its new smaller A-body intermediates to market.
Right now, though, the Chevrolet Citation adds a new throttle-body fuel injection system on its standard 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Among other minor changes, the car has high-pressure tires and the caster has been changed on the front suspension.
The divisions are dropping some models, such as the Chevrolet Impala and Caprice Landau coupes and the two-seat Caprice wagon.
The Chevrolet Camaro is all new for '82 - some 600 pounds lighter than its aging predecessor and 8 inches shorter.
The Corvette, a carryover for 1982, will be totally redesigned for '83.
Both Buick and Oldsmobile will get their own J-cars - Skyhawk and Firenza - in midyear. Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Pontiac got their J-cars last April - Cavalier, Cimarron, and the J-2000.
Improved J-car performance is pledged for '82.
The Chevette diesel, introduced last winter in some parts of the United States, goes nationwide except in California.
The diesel boom rolls on as Chevrolet offers a diesel in the Caprice Classic and Impala as well as the Monte Carlo and midsize Malibu Classic. As the biggest GM division asserts, 1982 is the ''year of the diesel'' for Chevrolet.
One of every 2 new Caprice and Malibu station wagons may be diesel-powered, the division predicts, along with a quarter of all conventional pickups, Blazers , and Suburbans and half of all Japanese-built minipickup LUVs.
''All together, more than 300,000 Chevrolets could be diesel-powered in 1982, '' acording to Robert D. Lund, divisional general manager.
''That would make Chevy one of the largest suppliers of diesel-powered cars and light trucks in the world.''
Newest among the diesels is a 6.2-liter, V-8, 130-hp. engine built in Moraine , Ohio, and installed in the pickup trucks, Blazers, and Suburbans. The LUV 2.2 -liter, 4-cylinder diesel was introduced in May in the LUV. Chevrolet uses the 5 .7-liter, V-8 diesel, built by Oldsmobile, in the Caprice, Malibu, and Monte Carlo, as well as the division's first V-6 diesel, the 4.3, also built by Oldsmobile.
The Japanese-built 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder diesel was introduced early this year in the Chevette and will be available nationwide by the end of the year.
Second half of story is RCARS1.