Spanish automaker has designs on US market for the late 1980s

With Japanese and Western European carmakers firmly entrenched in the United States, and entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin intent on shipping in the Yugo from (where else?) Yugoslavia, the US may get yet another little-known nameplate by the late 1980s. Spain's SEAT (SAY-at) expects to be selling a car in Canada by the end of this year, according to Juan Manuel Rodr'iguez Jado, director of export operations for the government-owned automaker.

``We won't be able to look at the United States seriously until at least 1987,'' Mr. Rodr'iguez asserts, saying: ``The major things are the right products and a good distribution system.''

Canada comes first, as it has with a number of other foreign nameplates over the years. South Korea's Hyundai is now selling the Pony in Canada and has shown a clear disposition to ship it to the US in the not-too-distant future. The Soviet-built Lada was introduced to Canada a few years ago as a prelude to sale in the US, but it was never able to hop over the border.

``We'll have to first find an importer for our cars,'' says Rodr'iguez, ``and then discuss with the importer the cars we'll send to Canada.'' Last November a SEAT market-development manager went to Canada in search of just such an importer.

The Spanish auto company already sells two Fiat-based cars both inside and outside Spain; has just put an all-new car on the market in Spain; and has plans for more new cars as part of a five-year, $5 billion development plan.

What car or cars would it ship to Canada?

``I don't think we should artificially restrict our product offering unless the importer tells us that it only wants to import one or two cars. If so, then it would have to be very justified.''

As for the US, Rodr'iguez asserts: ``We have to decide, first of all, whether we will go into the US market at all. Then we have to decide whether to do it alone or in company with someone else. Do we start in the East, West, or in between? There are many strategic decisions to be made, in addition to having the right products.''

One possible route could be a joint project with an American company, such as Renault's linkup with American Motors. Renault owns a 46 percent stake in the US carmaker.

``The major things are the right products and a good distribution system,'' Rodr'iguez says. Up to now SEAT has not been actively looking for an American partner. ``It's premature,'' he asserts.

``By world standards,'' he adds, ``we are a very small company, with an annual production capacity of 400,000 cars. [It built 250,000 cars in 1984.] Even if we extended it to a half million cars a year, we are still a small company by world standards.'' Some companies -- Sweden's SAAB, for example -- have done very well with far fewer cars than 400,000 a year, but, Rodr'iguez points out, ``SAAB is a very specialized product.

``While we may not be able to compete in the big market, we may be able to go into some specialized segments of the market. First, we want to go into Scandinavia and have a good launch in the United Kingdom, and only then we can talk about the rest of the world.

``If everything does not come together, we wouldn't even dare to try to break into the US market. Perhaps 1987 is too optimistic. Maybe it should be 1988 or '89.''

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