Sporty Cars Find Growing Market

SMALL, inexpensive, and fun to drive, new sporty coupes from Japanese carmakers are flooding the market, designed for the "Baby Bust" generation. In the process, they've created one of the few niches in the new-car market that is growing despite the industry's deep recession.

The segment actually isn't new. It was created nearly a decade ago with the launch of Honda's two-seat CRX. Based largely on the chassis and powertrain of the subcompact Civic, but given a sporty-looking skin, it appealed to young buyers dreaming of sports cars but having an economy-car budget.

In recent months, the choices have multiplied.

Industry analysts see the Mazda MX-3 as the most exciting new economy sporty car, with many of its styling cues borrowed from the long-popular Mazda RX-7 sports car.

Mazda will offer two versions of the MX-3, including a base model with a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. The other features an unusual 1.8-liter V6, the smallest V6 in the auto industry.

At a recent press preview in New York, Mazda officials were tight-lipped on details such as performance, though the 6-cylinder MX-3 should have 0- to 60-mile-per-hour acceleration of about 10-seconds, which could make it the fastest vehicle in the sporty car segment.

It is likely the price of the base 4-cylinder version will begin at a little more than $10,000.

As with the MX-3, there will be two versions of Nissan's new NX. The entry-level model is the NX1600, with a fuel-efficient 1.6-liter engine and a base price of $11,900.

The more powerful NX2000, with a 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, will carry a base price of $13,795. This model will also offer optional ABS brakes.

Toyota checks in by mid-year with the new Paseo. It is essentially a sportier-looking replacement for the two-door Tercel, boasting a 1.5-liter, multivalve engine kicking out 100 horsepower. No price has been set.

The Japanese aren't the only players. South Korean carmaker Hyundai offers the sporty Scoupe, at $8,500, the least expensive model in the sporty car segment.

Tom Lane, Hyundai's product planning manager, says "the Scoupe should attract buyers who were left behind when prices for [other] sporty coupes went out of control."

Some analysts also include the sporty Saturn SL2 in the sporty car segment, though it is a bit more expensive and appeals to slightly older buyers.

Whether or not you include the Saturn, "the small specialty segment is becoming very crowded, very competitive, very fast," says George McCabe, Mazda marketing vice president.

Industry experts say the demand for sporty coupes is coming from several sectors. The No. 1 market is among the so-called Baby Bust generation, those who followed the Baby Boomers. Just finishing college and entering the job market, they need an inexpensive, reliable set of wheels,

"If these cars weren't available, they'd be buying basic small cars like the Toyota Corolla," says Chris Cedergren, chief auto analyst of J. D. Power and Associates.

But while most can only afford basic, utilitarian transportation, many would like a splash of excitement.

Some buyers may also be moving downscale from more traditional sporty cars, such as the Mustang LX and base models of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. For a lot less money they can get fun-to-drive imports with relatively high power-to-weight ratios. That translates into more performance than the bigger domestic models.

Whatever the reason, Mazda officials say the sporty car niche accounted for sales of 210,000 units, and 2 percent of the overall new-car market in 1989. They predict the segment will grow to 280,000 units and a 2.9 percent share this year, and 330,000 units and 3.2 percent in 1992.

That may seem like a lot of volume, but not really, when you consider just how crowded the sporty car segment is becoming. Mazda, for example, expects to sell only 20,000 to 30,000 MX-3s a year.

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