IMPORTS: POWERFUL AND PRICEY '88. Consumers will find more high-tech gimmickry and a wide range of choices

What will the stock-market crash do to the imports? ``Few people buy a luxury car with stock certificates,'' says Grieg Coppe of Temple, Barker & Sloane Inc., of Lexington, Mass., a consulting firm. ``What is going to hurt imports more than anything else is the rise in price.''

The drop in the value of the US dollar is driving the cost of some cars out of sight. Also, consumer confidence is shaky, and this could affect sales as well.

Even so, the luxury-car market has historically shown strong resilience to downturns in the economy. Since 1978, European luxury cars have seen a sales rise every year despite a downturn in the overall automotive market.

Japanese imports have already been affected by a strong yen and increasing competition, not only from Detroit, but also from other exporters, such as the Koreans. Most of them, as a result, will not meet their voluntary quotas for the year. Indeed, an unprecedented number of imports are now competing for space in the United States market, and consumers have never had so much choice.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are on a technological roll. Honda and Mazda launch the first four-wheel-steering cars to hit the showroom. And the Japanese are taking aim at the upscale buyer who doesn't flinch at shelling out $25,000 or $30,000 on their car. Following the lead of Honda with its Acura division, Nissan is working on Infiniti and Toyota on Lexus.

Is Detroit worried? Alert, that's for sure. The quality gap between Japanese cars and those built by the Big Three in the United States has narrowed significantly, although it could take several more years to wipe it out. The problem is, the Japanese are unlikely to stand still.

Here's a rundown:


Japan's biggest carmaker launches an all-new Corolla for '88; plus more powerful engines, including an all-new 1.6-liter, 16-valve; full-time four-wheel-drive systems for its Camry four-door sedan and Celica turbo; and a Toyota-designed supercharger for its MR2 coupe.

Horsepower in the new high-revving Toyota MR2 mid-engine two-seater jumps from 112 to 145, while torque is up nearly 45 percent. Like a turbocharger, a supercharger forces air into the engine to boost combustion pressure and power. But unlike an exhaust-driven turbo, a supercharger is belt-driven off the crankshaft and gives almost instant response. A turbo, by contrast, tends to lag behind engine speed.

The snappy new Corolla, built in 12 countries and sold in 130, has a refined chassis and suspension; sleek, aerodynamic styling, including flush body surfaces and rounded corners; more power, and a boost in gas mileage. Handling is improved as well, and the new car is less noisy. Body stiffness and visibility are also better. All Corollas are now front-wheel-drive.

The All-Trac 16-valve engine for the Camry and Celica, with a new wide-ratio five-speed manual transmission, produces 40 percent more horsepower than the GT-S engine, making it Toyota's most powerful two-liter. The All-Trac system also uses four-wheel disc brakes with an antilock system an option.


Nissan's new sonar suspension system, available on the Maxima GXE sedan, is designed to ``read'' the road and then adjust the shock absorbers for a better ride. An inaudible sound wave is transmitted to the roadway just ahead of the front wheels, which then measures any changes in the surface of the road.

The Pulsar NX, totally redesigned earlier this year by Nissan Design International (NDI) in San Diego, gets a more powerful 16-valve engine in its SE model, as well as an optional four-speed automatic transmission.


This hard-driving, innovative Japanese carmaker unveils a brand-new, larger Civic/CRX lineup with new chassis, suspension, and 16-valve engine with fuel injection across the board. The popular Accord gives a firmer ride, while horsepower is increased 10 percent for improved performance.

Along with the Civic, an all-new Prelude also hits the blacktop with a host of improvements, including four-wheel steering on the Prelude Si 4WS, list-priced at $17,945 for the five-speed manual and $18,645 for the four-speed automatic.


One more Japanese carmaker plunges into the highly competitive luxury sedan market as the front-engine, rear-drive Mazda 929 rolls off the assembly line. The new upscale sedan has a spunky three-liter, 18-valve V-6, giving all the performance that most motorists will ever need or want. Handling, stability, and ride quality are very good, the result of a new rear suspension. Wind noise at highway speed remains low.

Mazda introduces a newly designed 626, including optional four-wheel steering on the 626 Turbo four-door sedan with automatic transmission. The direction and degree of rear-wheel steering is determined by the speed of the vehicle. The 323 gets a sporty GT four-door sedan which joins the three-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and five-door wagon.


The luxurious front-drive Galant Sigma debuts with a new three-liter V-6 engine in a midsize, four-door luxury sedan, which the Mitsubishi management calls the first in a new generation of cars. Aerodynamic by design, the Sigma blends style, performance, and functional technology in a very appealing package.


Heading up the new models is the new XT6 coupe with a water-cooled six-cylinder engine rated at 2.7 liters. The XT6 comes either with front-wheel drive or with a choice of two full-time four-wheel-drive systems. The nine-valve, three-cylinder, entry-level Justy also gets optional four-wheel drive, as does the hatchback.


The Trooper II sports-utility vehicle gets a more powerful engine, while an automatic transmission is available for the first time. The subcompact I-Mark has few changes, but the turbo version gets larger brakes and clutch. The Impulse sport coupe features suspension components by Lotus of Britain.


The South Korean carmaker adds two new models to its Excel line, a sporty GS three-door hatchback and a base-model Excel four-door sedan with a suggested retail price starting at $5,295. The new models are an effort by Hyundai to ``cover the bases'' in a market that's becoming increasingly crowded, especially in the low-cost area.

A 12-valve, 1.5-liter, overhead-cam engine powers the Excel. Standard transmission is a four-speed manual, while a five-speed overdrive is standard on the GL, GLS, and GS.


In the absence of any new metal for '88, VW has realigned the prices and equipment levels in its Golf and Jetta lines, which, in effect, results in a price cut from '87.

A base-level Golf, which the West German automaker didn't have last year, is list-priced at $7,990. The lowest-cost VW is the Brazilian-built Fox, which starts at $5,995. Quantum prices are up about 4.5 percent, with the only option an automatic transmission.


While still optimistic for 1988, West Germany's most prestigious carmaker has struck a few potholes in recent weeks. The stock-market rout could have a major impact on such ultra-priced cars as those sold by Mercedes-Benz, in which the least-expensive model, the 190E sedan with manual transmission, lists for nearly $30,000.

Also, the company has withdrawn from the turbo-diesel market because of durability problems with the emissions-control system, thus leaving only one diesel-engine car in its stall, the nonturbo 190D.

And the company also got a slap in the face as it fell to third in a recent J.D. Power listing, giving up the first-place spot.

A new midsize coupe, the first in a decade, heads the lineup for '88. Based on the 300E sedan, the limited-production 300CE has the same basic technical features as the sedan, including a 177-hp., six-cylinder engine and five-link rear suspension. The coupe lists for $52,500 with automatic transmission. The 560SEC coupe, based on the 560SEL, is the flagship and lists for $75,850.


After its major new-product salvo last spring, which included the 735i luxury sedan, three high-performance ``M'' models, the first BMW convertible in the US since the 1950's, and more pep in its 3-series models, BMW in December will launch its 5-liter 750iL as top gun in its new-car showroom. The 750iL will have a V-12 engine.

Also due by year's end is an all-wheel-drive version of its 3-series, the 325iX.


Stunned by the claims of ``sudden acceleration'' in the automatic-transmission Audi 5000, Audi launches the 80 and 90 sport sedans as replacements for the 4000, the first new Audi models since 1983.

The Audi 5000 remains virtually the same for '88, but next year a new interior will be introduced as Audi drops the 5000 tag for the European designations, the Audi 100 and turbocharged Audi 200.


First introduced as a 1985 model, the biggest change in the 505 Turbo S is its more potent 180-hp., 2.2-liter engine, which, the company explains, is adapted for road use from its Turbo 16, twice the world-rally champion. The engine has 30 more horsepower than in 1987 and delivers 205 foot-pounds of torque at 2,500 r.p.m.

Performance is also increased in its two station wagons, the 505 DL and 505 GLS. Later in the model year the company will launch an eight-passenger wagon, the 505 SW8. Premi`ering for '88 is the entry-level 505 DL sedan with automatic-control air conditioning and central locking for the doors.


Almost no one would name this booming Swedish car company as among the contenders for ``design leader of the year.''

Rather, Volvo is generally viewed as a builder of staid-style vehicles that do their job - moving people - exceedingly well. They're regarded as among the safest vehicles on the road, however.

The '88-model Volvo 760 is much more sleek, with a new curving hood and rounded nose, lowered grille, and new European-style headlights. The interior is revamped as well, bringing the car far more in line with the styling trend in today's automobiles.

All the 760 wagons and most of the sedans are powered by Volvo's 2.3-liter, turbocharged, intercooled, four-cylinder engine linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. All turbo sedans and wagons include a driver-side air bag and antilock brakes. Both are options on any 740 GLE sedan or wagon. The Bertone-styled 780 coupe gets a multilink rear suspension and electronic climate control.


The five-door hatchback Saab 9000, flagship of the company's auto fleet, gets an advanced, fully integrated antilock braking system as standard on the turbo and 9000S. Stopping distance, on dry pavement with cold brakes, is 139 feet from 62 m.p.h., reports Saab.

The cars also get rear side-window de-misters, while the 9000S receives as standard equipment the 9000 turbo's Electronic Display Unit, which informs the driver on average fuel consumption, distance to empty, battery voltage, etc.


The all-new Jaguar XJ6 and Vanden Plas sedan were introduced at the Greater New York Auto Show six months ago after a seven-year, $300 million development program.

The cars are powered by an aluminum-alloy 3.6-liter, 24-valve, six-cylinder engine that was designed specifically for the XJ6. More than half of all Jaguars are sold in the US. The cars sell in the low to mid-$40s, the Vanden Plas being the more luxurious of the two cars.

The XJ6 features a sophisticated array of in-car electronics, including a diagnostic system that is designed to pinpoint faults in the car's electrical system.

Range Rover

The British-built Range Rover, a 4x4, go-anywhere luxury sport-utility vehicle, arrived in the US a scant eight months ago, but caught on quickly with high-income professionals who were looking for something upscale in four-wheel-drive transportation. The price of the '88 version is up 4.7 percent, to $33,400.

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