Yugo, new minicompact on the block, doesn't quite measure up

IS the front-drive Yugo automobile for real? After driving one the other day, I think it's important to know what the car is and what it is not. Clearly, the Yugo is not a turnpike car, by any stretch of the imagination. You don't take a long trip in it, at least not yet. The Yugo is really another option to a used car and is useful for driving around town, with limited commuting possibilities.

Indeed, the Yugo automobile feels more like a toy car. You just don't drive a Yugo very hard.

In the car's interior, the heater controls are awkward to manage, and you have to wonder about their durability over the long pull. The seats are far from comfortable, and the steering wheel is cocked at an uncomfortable angle. The upholstery seems more like bath-towel fabric than car upholstery.

As for inside space, if you're taller than a ``very small person,'' you won't like the back seat because the headroom is almost nonexistent. Up-front room seems fine, however.

The windshield wipers may be better than they were at the start when they sometimes just fell off the cars. The keys still bend much too easily. ``That was one of the problems,'' admits one dealer, talking about when keys broke off in the ignition slot. ``They must be made of butter.'' When I tried to open the rear hatch of the Yugo I drove, I put too much pressure on the key and it bent.

So far, as might be expected, Consumer Reports magazine refuses to recommend the Yugo, and the car has had a wide array of ``bad press.'' But the Japanese, too, had their fair share of problems in the 1960s with their first entries into the US market.

On the plus side, the car, despite the size of its engine (rated at 1.1 liters), has surprising pickup, stops fast when you stomp on the brake pedal, and handles quite well. And there's one thing to be said for the car's importer, Yugo of America. It apparently stands by the 12-month/12,000-mile warranty, and may even provide a rental car, if needed, at no cost to the Yugo buyer.

The Yugo is derived from a 20-year-old Fiat. But just about everything in the car is made in Yugoslavia -- engine, tires, battery, you name it. (I'm told, however, that the importer plans to use Champion spark plugs because of problems with the Yugoslav plugs.)

To make the car more attractive, some dealers are dressing up the Yugo by adding some sporty touches, such as paint striping, but all of this costs the buyer more money -- though certainly the Yugo's price tag is about as low as they come these days. The car I drove is list-priced at just over $4,800, although the window price is $3,990. To $3,990 add the shipping charge and dealer prep. If you want rustproofing, add another $200-plus.

A styling facelift is planned for 1987 with a 5-door hatchback due in 1988. Beyond that, a two-seat, 4-wheel-drive sports car is in the offing. Automatic transmission is a year away.

Chief executive officer of the car's importer, Yugo of America, is Malcolm Bricklin, who built sports coupes for a while in New Brunswick, N.J., in the early 1970s, was one of the founders of the Japanese importer Subaru of America, and most recently brought in Fiat and Pininfarina convertibles. Mr. Bricklin says he expects he can sell up to 350,000 Yugos in the United States over the next four years.

The car is produced by Yugoslavia's Zastava Works, where the hourly wage is 78 cents on all cars shipped to the US -- a 30 percent premium over the standard auto wage of 60 cents an hour -- in order to encourage quality.

The Yugo is still very new to the American car market so it is too early to tell what will happen down the pike. In the early weeks of its introduction, potential buyers were lining up to drive one. The novelty now appears to have worn off.

One thing the Yugo has done is dramatize the interest in the minicompact market, which may have a potential for more than a half million cars a year in the US and Canada. In Canada, the Chevrolet Sprint has already been joined by its Pontiac Firefly twin and the Nissan Micra as entries in this smallest of new-car segments.

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