Two-wheel-drive Cherokee. American Motors takes a cue from GM and Ford

American Motors, which claims to be the ``home of 4-wheel-drive for '85,'' is offering a 2-wheel-drive Cherokee for those drivers who may have no real need for all-wheel traction. The 2-WD Cherokee obviously is not aimed at the snow country of the North, but rather at the Sunbelt states from Florida to Texas and points west.

AMC took a look at what Ford and General Motors are doing with the 2-WD versions of their utility vehicles -- the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Blazer -- says John C. Bird Jr., head of AMC's New England office for the past two years and now reassigned to Chicago, and that was all the incentive the company required.

In 1981 fewer than 23,000 full-size, 2-WD sport-utility wagons were sold in the United States. But with the arrival of the downsized wagon a year later, sales shot up. In 1984, 2-WD compact sport-utility wagons took 40 percent of some 105,000 total sport-utility sales.

With a dearth of new products over the next couple of years, AMC is scouting for new opportunities in the auto market at a time when its subcompact Alliance and Encore are chugging through deep sand in the marketplace. The problem is the intensifying competition.

The financially ailing automaker, which lost $29 million in the first quarter of 1985 after a modest profit in 1984, is 46.4 percent owned by Renault of France. Renault has its own problems at home, and last year chalked up a $1.4 billion loss that forced a top-level shakeup at the government-owned car manufacturer.

AMC still produces its distinctive 4-wheel-drive Eagle, which provides ``shift on the fly'' capability, plus a larger standard engine for '85, although there is talk that the car will be dropped in 1988 when a new model range hits the road. Standard transmission in the Eagle is a 5-speed manual with a 3-speed automatic as an option. The engine is a 4.2-liter (258-cubic-inch) ``6.''

The Eagle comes as both a 4-door sedan and 4-door wagon and is the last car produced by AMC before the French automaker Renault took over the management wheel several years ago.

Base-priced at more than $11,000, one thing the Eagle does not provide is high mileage on the road. I could never get the Environmental Protection Agency figures of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the road with the 3-speed automatic transmission. You have to remember, of course, that the Eagle is no lightweight, tipping the scales at some 3,400 pounds.

Despite its age, the Eagle really is a practical, high-off-the-ground, hard-working vehicle for anyone who wants rugged 4-wheel-drive capability.

Besides Jeep, a bright spot for AMC at the moment may be its smart new Alliance-derived convertible.

In 1986 the company will import the Renault-built Alpine sports car in relatively low numbers. Renault products have yet to make a strong impression on the car-buying public. AMC also will offer a pickup based on the Jeep XJ, calling it the Comanche.

Beyond that, AMC will introduce a 4-wheel-drive version of the Alliance in 1987 and a new line of midsize vehicles to be built at its new Brampton, Ontario, assembly plant, now under construction.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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