Fuel-efficient 1-liter mini-cars scooting their way into US market

Will American car buyers go for 1-liter cars, those mini-compacts that are powered by engines of 1 liter (61 cubic inches) or less? That's a question the Detroit carmakers have been pondering for some time. Now General Motors is gradually reaching the conclusion that a substantial number of motorists will indeed buy these small, fuel-efficient cars.

Although these vehicles only weigh 1,400 to 1,600 pounds, they can carry four passengers, provide from 50 to 60 miles on a gallon of fuel, have the front-seat room of full-sized cars, deliver very acceptable performance and ride, and can be bought for $5,000 to $6,000.

At present, the only 1-liter car marketed in the United States is the Chevrolet Sprint produced by Suzuki in Japan and sold in only nine Western states. Because of the voluntary Japanese import limits, only 17,000 Sprints will be imported this year. The Sprint, incidentally, is the largest of several mini-cars built and marketed by Suzuki in Japan.

One-liter cars seem to be catching on in Japan and may soon be appearing in substantial numbers in the US, particularly if the Japanese import limits are lifted April 1, 1985. The US government has indicated so far that it's still undecided on this issue.

Nissan introduced one of the first 1-liter automobiles in 1982 in Japan, naming it the March. This car is now called the Micra in Canada, where it was introduced a year ago.

Since 1982, a number of other mini-compacts have made their debut. Honda brought out the Civic, a small-engine version of its US Civic. Subaru introduced a 1-liter model called the Justy, and Daihatsu face-lifted its Charade. The latter has a 3-cylinder diesel engine that provides around 60 miles to a gallon of fuel.

The Toyota Starlet, the Toyo Kogyo Minx, and the Volkswagen Polo fit into this category, too.

While other US auto companies are wondering about the demand for these 1 -liter models and perhaps hope they'll ''go away'' because of their poor potential for profit, Chevrolet general manager Robert Burger's experience with his 1-liter Sprint has made him quite optimistic about its future.

''I think those cars have potential for 5 percent of the market, or 500,000 units in a 10-million-car year,'' he says.

''We've found that the very young buyer, or the 'entry guy' who's just out of high school or technical school and who is not going to college, are quite aware of their families having two or more cars.

''Now these people, if they're married, are considering owning two cars in the Sprint price range, because when you add the price of two such cars together you get a total cost of about $10,000, or about the average price of just one large car.''

Mr. Burger says he didn't know how large this type of market was. But the curiosity of Chevrolet has been piqued and its advertising agency has now been instructed to do research on the subject.

Thomas Staudt, marketing director at Chevrolet, says that Sprint buyers are generally young and well educated, with women buying about 50 percent of the cars.

Some marketing people see the Sprint and other 1-liter cars being especially popular in California and Texas, because their fuel efficiency should attract many motorists in these states who often commute from 80 to 120 miles or more a day.

No doubt the availability and price of gasoline in the future will be a major factor in the success or failure of the 1-liter cars. It appears that they can do reasonably well even with today's plentiful and reasonably priced fuel, but the 1-liter models could be big winners if another fuel squeeze occurs. Few people, however, expect this to occur.

If the Japanese import quotas are terminated next spring, Chevrolet will surely increase Sprint imports by a substantial margin, bringing the car to all its 5,500 dealers rather than to just the several hundred in the West.

If this happens, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors can be expected to bring in similar products.

Despite all the enthusiasm, one aspect of the 1-liter cars is likely to slow their advance. This is the wariness that many people will have about the safety of traveling in 1,500-pound cars. Even the Japanese ''beetle'' weighs hundreds of pounds more than the Sprint.

But even given this drawback, the 1-liter cars will make a good deal of sense for many American motorists whose car trips involve only themselves, and sometimes one passenger.

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