US carmakers still struggle to compete with imports

The searing battle between the domestic carmakers and the imports is getting hotter by the week, especially at the lower end of the market. The under-$4,000 price tag of the Yugo GV points up the sharply lower building costs overseas. The question persists: How can Detroit compete?

Besides the Yugo, Japanese minicompact producers Suzuki and Daihatsu, as well as South Korea's Hyundai, are also planning to ship cars to the United States. Suzuki, whose Sprint minicompact is sold by General Motors, has put the Samurai, a mini-Jeep utility vehicle, on sale in California, Florida, and Georgia.

The front-drive Hyundai Excel, a subcompact successor to Canada's No. 1 import seller, the Hyundai Pony, is on tap for an early 1986 launching in the US, while Daihatsu's Charade, sold by Toyota in Japan, is expected to arrive in 1987.

In fighting back, Ford has embellished its top-selling Escort and Lynx subcompacts with a peppier 1.9-liter, 4-cylinder engine and jazzier grille for '86. At the same time, Ford has made a giant leap in the midsize market, where the Europeans are strong and the Japanese are making inroads, with its $3 billion Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable station wagons and sedans.

Not to be outdone, GM for '86 is unveiling two upscale lines, the Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile Delta 88, as front-drive family cars, while the luxury-coupe Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, and Oldsmobile Torona-do offer a spate of high-tech advancements. The Eldorado, for the first time, is twinned with the 4-door Cadillac Seville, all produced at GM's new assembly plant here.

Chrysler has decided to hold its new entries until 1986 when a pair of smaller sporty cars, the Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Shadow, will kick off a series of debuts.

American Motors also held off for 1987-model debuts, which will be highlighted by import from Renault of the new R-19 compact being unveiled in Europe in January, as well as the Alpine sports coupe.

From their own part, the importers are meeting the domestic competition with determination and new products.

Look for the following new cars from Europe in 1986:

Britain's Executive, a joint-venture car from Honda and Rover; Italy's Alfa Romeo Milano or 75; Sweden's Saab 9000; and from West Germany, the new BMW 7-series sedan, Ford Scorpio (a 4-door mate to the Mercury Merkur), Porsche 911 Turbo and 944 Turbo, and Mercedes-Benz's revamped 200-300 series.

The Japanese in midyear unwrapped the Isuzu front-drive I-Mark and Nissan Stanza wagon, the latter with seven seats and dual sliding doors. Fall entries include the front-drive Toyota Celica coupe, a redesigned Honda Accord series, and the second generation of the Mazda RX-7 sportster. Nissan will introduce the two-seat EXA this winter to compete against the RX-7, Pontiac Fiero, and Toyota MR2.

Missing from the roster this year, for the first time since the 1950s, is the Impala nameplate by Chevrolet. Impala had been a model of the Caprice rear-drive series, which Chevrolet says it will retain indefinitely because of the surprising spurt this year in sales of rear-drive sedans and wagons.

Buick and Olds are keeping their rear-drive LeSabre and Delta 88 (Custom Cruiser) wagons, while demand has actually spurted for the Chrysler Fifth Avenue, Lincoln Town Car, and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham four-door luxury sedans.

How to increase new-car sales to women has become a front-burner issue for the Big Three automakers. Japanese-built cars have already won the hearts and pocketbooks of women in ever-increasing numbers, particularly in the entry-level and sporty segments of the market.

``I wish I knew the answer,'' a frustrated Edsel Ford II, director of marketing for Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division, sighs, ``because nothing has worked for any of us.''

Chevrolet has set up a 12-member ``women's marketing committee'' to achieve the goal of bringing women back into the domestic new-car fold and keeping them there.

Committee chairwoman Jane Hammond has also arranged for 10 Chevrolet-sponsored seminars in US cities on the subject ``Strategies for Success.'' The conferences, expected to draw more than 60,000 career-minded women, will be held through next October with such speakers as Maureen Reagan and Dr. Sally Ride, the astronaut.

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