Foreign firms tempt US buyers with cars made for economy, luxury, or just plain fun

THE import-car invasion of the United States is picking up speed. By 1990, foreign nameplates could account for half of all new cars sold in North America -- although many will be built right here. In the first eight months of this year, for example, 30.5 percent of all new cars sold in the US were imports, compared with 26.7 percent in the same period during 1985. This may not be all bad news for domestic automakers, who are now playing the game of ``If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.''

In 1988, Japanese and South Korean automakers will open five new assembly plants in North America: Toyota in Georgetown, Ky., and Cambridge, Ontario; Diamond-Star Motors (Chrysler and Mitsubishi) in central Illinois; Honda in Alliston, Ontario; and Hyundai in Bromont, Quebec.

In 1989, GM and Suzuki will open a joint venture at a new plant in at Ingersoll, Ontario. A year later, Subaru and Isuzu will join the party with a plant in an as-yet-unnamed location in the Midwest.

These will join the Toyota-General Motors joint venture in Fremont, Calif., Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., and Honda in Marysville, Ohio.

Although sales of luxury European autos are rising, no European manufacturers except Volkswagen and Volvo either make cars in North America or have plans to do so. Volkswagen has built cars at its New Stanton, Pa., plant since 1978 and Volvo operates a small plant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it now turns out 225 cars a week.

The pressure on Japanese automakers to locate production facilities in North America results from two factors: (1) quotas on the number of cars they may ship to the United States and Canada and (2) the sharp drop in the value of the dollar against the Japanese yen. This has caused the Japanese to raise prices significantly (although they have not passed along the full effect of the dollar's drop) and has made North American plants even more financially attractive.

Here is a model-by-model roundup of the 1987 imports, including cars from their North American subsidiaries (see Page B1 for a look at 1987 American-built cars): JAPAN Toyota

The No. 1 import's first US-built car is the Corolla FX-16, a sporty four-valve-per-cylinder subcompact. The $10,000 FX-16 features the same 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine used in the mid-engine Toyota MR2 sports coupe and zips from zero to 60 miles an hour in a brisk 9.4 seconds.

Toyota introduces four-wheel drive for its minivan. The entry-level Tercel subcompact has been restyled for the third time since 1980, with more aerodynamic lines. A new Supra Turbo will produce 230 horsepower, a 30 hp. ungrade for the top-of-the-line sports car. The compact Camry gets a Cressida-like front end and a peppy 16-valve engine. Nissan

Timed with the opening of the Tennessee plant where it is being built, the Sentra subcompact received a new silhouette last summer in an early '87 introduction. A three-door hatchback Sentra is now available, and the car is three inches longer overall. The midsize Maxima and compact Stanza received similar restyling. Earlier, Nissan updated its Tennessee-built pickup truck with aerodynamic front-end lines. Honda/Acura

Arrival of the midsize Acura Legend and compact Integra last January marked the initial Japanese entry into the luxury sedan market. Honda now builds its subcompact Civic as well as the compact Accord at Marysville, Ohio, and is building auto engines at its motorcycle engine plant in Anna, Ohio.

Honda's goal by 1990 is to sell 1 million cars in the US, which means that another car-assembly plant almost surely will be needed. This will be in addition to an Accord plant opening this winter in Alliston, Ontario. Mazda

The 323 subcompact adds a station wagon, a year before the joint-venture plant with Ford starts production at Flat Rock, southwest of Detroit. The new plant will divide production of a second-generation 626 compact equally between Mazda and Ford, with each getting about 120,000 cars a year.

Mazda and Ford are also working up a rotary-engine edition of the Mustang. The Mazda RX-7 two-seater coupe is the only rotary-engine car sold in the US. Mazda's 929 midsize sedan is ticketed for a 1988 model year US debut. For 1987, Mazda also is offering Bosch antilock brakes as an option on the RX-7, as well as an electronic four-speed overdrive automatic transmission on the 626. Subaru

The minicompact Justy will hit the US for under $6,000. Subaru and Isuzu also have joined forces in search of a Midwest location for an assembly plant to build Isuzu cars and Subaru utility vehicles. A new full-time, four-wheel-drive system will adorn the RX Turbo sedan and bring the price up to $14,000. Mitsubishi

The four-wheel-drive Montero utility vehicle is being furnished to Chrysler for the first time as the Dodge Raider. Chrysler already sells the Mitsubishi-built Dodge Ram 50.

The Starion sports coupe will be sold by Chrysler as the Chrysler Conquest with the addition of a motorized front-seat-belt system. Mitsubishi's subcompact Mirage gets a four-door sedan (the Mirage equates with the Dodge Colt). Chrysler will boost imports of the four-wheel-drive Vista wagons from Mitsubishi. The top-of-the-line Galant sedan offers a 5-speed manual transmission. Isuzu

Turbocharging is here for both of the cars sold under Isuzu's nameplate, as well as for the Chevrolet Spectrum subcompact built by Isuzu. The Japanese maker's I-Mark subcompact will add a turbo model after the first of the year, while the snazzy Impulse Turbo coupe will upgrade its handling in a new RS model. The Spectrum Turbo raises that car's horsepower 40 percent, to 105. Suzuki

Suzuki's new under-$7,000 Samurai mini-utility vehicle with four-wheel drive is on sale in only a dozen Western and Southeastern states, but it has become an instant yuppie hit. Suzuki expects to sell 75,000 this model year as distribution grows. The 1987 model gets cruise control and more legroom.

The Sprint minicar supplied to Chevrolet will also be turbocharged, boosting the 1-liter engine from 48 to 70 hp. SWEDEN Volvo

A new flagship with Italian styling from Bertone, the 780 two-door sedan will arrive this winter with a $33,000 to $35,000 pricetag. The 780 and the 760 four-door sedan have antilock brakes and offer optional turbo versions. Next fall Volvo will export its first front-wheel-drive car to the US, the 480ES coupe produced by its subsidiary in the Netherlands. Saab

The year-old 9000 adds a $17,000 nonturbo version rated at 130 hp., compared with 175 for the turbocharged, top-of-the-line model. WEST GERMANY Volkswagen

Increased shipments are planned during 1987 for VW's 16-valve Scirocco coupe and four-wheel-drive Quantum Syncro sedan. Jetta notchbacks will be added to the line at New Stanton, Pa., where Golf hatchbacks have been exclusively made, gradually cutting export of Jettas from West Germany.

VW's big news is the January debut of the Brazilian-built Fox subcompact, priced from about $6,000. The Fox is powered with a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine which is noticeably more peppy than competitors like the Hyundai Excel or Honda Civic.

The Golf GTI and Jetta GLI sport models offer Scirocco's 16-valve engine. Audi

The company is eyeing a comeback in 1987, when the long-awaited, aero-styled 4000 series joins the trendy 5000. Porsche

A $59,000 928S-4, boasting new sheet metal and a more powerful 32-valve V-8, debuts in 1987. The 928 now generates a mere 288 hp. Bavarian Motor Works (BMW)

Major changes are coming at the upper and lower ends of the Munich-based automaker's lineup. The new M3 model in the 325 series offers a 200-hp. engine and a $30,000 price tag, while the restyled aero-looking 735 is priced at about $45,000. Merkur (Mercury)

Welcome the Scorpio four-door sedan as a 1988 model next spring, with antilock brakes and a modernistic appearance. The Merkur XR4Ti coupe enters its third year as a Lincoln-Mercury dealer import, retaining its 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but donning larger 15-inch wheels and Pirelli tires. Mercedes-Benz

An SL coupe will be added in the year-old 300 series and a turbo edition in the 190 series, which will reportedly get a cabriolet body style next summer. GREAT BRITAIN Jaguar

It will still be called the XJ6, but for the first time in more than a decade the four-door super-sedan in the $35,000 range will be subtly refurnished. There'll be a roomier interior and 300 pounds less weight. The 12-cylinder XJS will finally be available as a convertible in the US (the Cabrio, sold in Europe since 1984) for about $46,000. Austin Rover

Sterling, Austin Rover's new import, is a cousin of the Acura Legend and makes use of the Honda V-6 engine developed for the Legend. It will boast an elegant British flavor with wood and leather d'ecor. The $20,000 sedan is scheduled for February delivery. ITALY Alfa Romeo

Three variations of the Milano four-door sedan unveiled last winter will be offered for 1987, priced from $13,000 to $15,000 and powered by a 154-hp. V-6 engine. Allant'e/Cadillac

The Turin stylist Pininfarina will do the bodywork for Cadillac's $50,000-plus two-seat coupe, giving the Allant'e an Italian flair unusual for any General Motors division. `Lido' (Maserati)

That's right, the new Chrysler coupe using the Dodge Daytona Turbo platform will bear traces of Maserati and could come to market in 1987. It might even have a nameplate inspired by the real first name of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. FRANCE Renault

The parent company of American Motors will export two cars to North America in the coming year, the compact Medallion, based on the R-21 in sedan and station wagon body styles, and the turbocharged Alpine sports coupe in the $30,000 range. Peugeot

The 505 sedan gets a new 2.8-liter V-6 rated at 145 hp. and priced under $19,000. YUGOSLAVIA

The Yugo GV minicar, priced from $3,990, goes sporty with a $4,990 GVX in March, plugging in a 5-speed manual transmission or an optional automatic. SOUTH KOREA Hyundai

Sales of the Excel surpassed 20,000 cars a month in August and pushed the new importer of subcompact cars into seventh place for the year even though it has dealers in only 31 states. A redesigned Stellar compact will be added to the lineup late in 1987, followed by a new plant in Bromont, Quebec, where a Stellar successor will be built in late 1989. Kia

Ford dealers next spring will get the Festiva, derived from the Mazda 323. Daewoo

GM's Pontiac division will begin to import in 1987 the Opel-designed LeMans subcompact. MEXICO

The Mercury Tracer subcompact has gone on sale at Lincoln-Mercury dealers in Canada and will reach the US in the spring.

This Mazda 323 clone replaces the Lynx after the '87 model year.

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