Imported cars remain formidable competitors for US automakers despite Japan's agreement last May to reduce shipments to the US by nearly 8 percent in the current fiscal year from 1,820,000 to 1,680,000.
The top three importers - Toyota, Nissan (Datsun), and Honda -- are all introducing sharply restyled compacts this fall in an effort to recoup volume reductions among the lowest-priced subcompacts.
Toyota, meanwhile, has served notice of an average price increase of 7.5 percent on 1982 models in what is shaping up as an importwide trend to maximize revenues as US volume recedes.
Unaffected by the government-ordered constraints on Japan's car exports to the US (and Canada, too), European producers of so-called upscale cars are reaping a record harvest among American buyers this year.
All-time highs for US sales in the first eight months of 1981 were notched by Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Peugeot. The newest import, the Irish-built De Lorean car, jumped off to sold-out demand among its 340 US dealers. Alfa Romeo's new GTV-6 coupe was also an early hit.
Exporters of lower-priced cars to the US from Europe did not fare as well this year, however. Britain's Jaguar, Rover, Triumph dropped MG and Triumph sportsters as well as Rover sedan shipments to the US and decided to concentrate on the top-of-the-line Jaguar range.
Fiat discontinued its Brava sedan traffic and confirmed a report that its Strada series might follow suit. This would confine its efforts to the sporty entries only, the X 1/9 and Spider 2000.
An admitted 1981 disappointment sales-wise were the Renault models sold through American Motors dealers - Le Car and the 18i. But Renault, now a 46.4 percent owner of AMC, expects a big lift in 1982 when an Americanized edition of its new R-9 subcompact goes into production at the AMC plant in Kenosha, Wis., on the heels of its introduction of a sporty coupe import called the Fuego.
Another major European-based company, which is planning both new models and a new American plant next year, is Volkswagen. VW will replace the bigger-than-Rabbit-sized Scirocco with a redesigned car for 1982 while its Dasher will give way to the new Quantum.
A second Rabbit assembly plant, joining the 31/2-year-old facility at New Stanton, Pa., is scheduled to open next summer in Sterling Heights, Mich., northeast of Detroit.
Japan's Honda is slated to be the third import to go ''domestic'' in 1982 with a US assembly plant. The Honda plant at an existing motorcycle assembly location in Marysville, Ohio, will build the all-new Accord being unveiled this fall.
Nissan is erecting a pickup truck and engine plant at Smyrna, Tenn., for startup in 1983.
Just ahead of the imposition of voluntary restraints on Japanese shipments to the US, Isuzu became Japan's seventh vehicle exporter to the bountiful American market. Diesel and gasoline cars and trucks from Isuzu went on sale in 22 Western and Southern states last February; and subsequently Mitsubishi Motors also announced plans to establish its own US importing organization separate from its long-established connection with Chrysler Corporation.
With all US automakers struggling through a deep and still unabating sales recession, 1981 has brought more forging of closer links among the Western world's producers than ever before.
Joint-venture linkups have predominated mainly for cars and engines, with the outstanding exception being Renault's purchase of a controlling interest in AMC and a 10 percent equity in Mack Trucks Inc.
Forecasts of imported-car sales in the US during the 1982-model year have varied widely because of the uncertainty of the net impact of Japanese constraints, the opening of the three new assembly plants by overseas producers, and the somewhat unexpected boom in sales of luxury cars priced from $20,000 to
Escaping unscathed from Tokyo's rollback are pickup trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles, such as those imported by Subaru.
The truck sales total in the US, bolstered by Isuzu's entry, is expected to exceed 500,000 this year again in spite of a higher tariff imposed by the federal government in August 1980. Subaru, the only importer of 4-wheel-drive cars, is introducing a restyled and roomier Brat utility vehicle this fall.
Upscale new models from Japan for 1982 include the Toyota Celica subcompact and its sporty Supra coupe derivative; the Nissan Stanza replacement for the compact 510 series; the Honda Accord with a new Quintet 4-door hatchback body style; and 4-door sedans in the Mitsubishi/Chrysler Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ series.
Toyota and Isuzu also divulged plans to invade the sports-coupe performance market later in 1982 with the Soarer and Piazza, respectively. These would challenge Datsun's top-selling 280ZX, the Chevrolet Corvette (which gets a radically downsized edition in 1983), and the rotary-engine Mazda RX-7.
Producers of pricy European cars are not resting on their oars for 1982. BMW will replace the 528i with a sleeker body, while Volvo adds a turbocharged station wagon and revives the diesel option which it dropped for 1981 because of California emissions certification problems now reportedly resolved.
Saab is promising a second-generation fuel-saving system for its turbocharged engine called Automatic Performance Control. A trendy Audi coupe was unveiled last spring, an offshoot of the 4-wheel-drive Auti Quattro. A 944 model will replace the Porsche 924.
Fuel economy is the preeminent consideration at Mercedes-Benz for 1982, which follows the successful launch a year ago of its 380 replacement for the 450 range at the top of the West German luxury maker's lineup. Mercedes-Benz is also a model year away from the long-awaited debut of its ''downsized'' compact, code-named the W-201.
Another record-setter, France's Peugeot, has quietly put its own line-topped 604 on sale in the US. The 604 features a turbo-diesel engine similar to that in the 505 series.
The De Lorean (named after its founding chairman, former General Motors vice-president John Z. De Lorean) has arrived at a $25,000 suggested sticker price amid much fanfare. De Lorean's production rate at the Dunmurry plant in Northern Ireland reached 80 a day Oct. 1, with all of the first-year output headed for the US.
For the fifth straight year, the VW Rabbit with a diesel engine and 4-speed manual transmission received the Environmental Protection Agency's highest-mileage estimate - 45 miles per gallon in highway driving for 1982, up 3 mpg from 1981.
Only one American car, the Chevrolet Chevette with an Isuzu-supplied diesel engine, made it to the top 10 at 40 mpg.