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From Europe, Everything Old Is New Again

Car builders are stepping up their efforts in the U.S. market, including some who bailed out years ago.

November 19, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

BIRMINGHAM, England — Jaguar Cars, ever loyal to an elegant heritage and local work force, chose the Birmingham International Motor Show on its industrial doorstep to introduce a smaller shape for the next millennium: the 2000 S-Type sports sedan.

That done, executives of the 62-year-old British heirloom, which Ford rescued from ruin in 1989, said the handsome bonnet of the latest Jaguar to mime lines from the '60s is pointed directly at the United States.

"We don't have the European penetration of Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen, and so the United States takes about 47% of Jaguar production," said Mike Dale, president of Jaguar Cars of North America. "The United States, from Jaguar's point of view, is home market."

That is also the developing view of other European car builders--Rover, MG, Maserati, even makers of the redoubtable Morgan sports car and brick-shaped Mini--that brought their baubles to last month's show and acknowledged that they are poised to join the current Eurovasion of America.

The sly intrusion has been growing for months. And U.S. sales figures for October prove exactly how heavy the influx. While Big Three sales were up 8% and Asian sales rose 13%, U.S. purchases of European cars and sport-utility vehicles jumped a whopping 28% from a year earlier. And in the first nine months of this year, Europe's share of the American market grew from 6.5% to 8.4%.

For most of the new arrivals, it will be an encore excursion into a rich overseas market they dumped years ago as too complicated, too restrictive, too unappreciative.

For others, particularly veterans of the American scene like Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover, the European influx represents a second look at vehicles they once said would never be exported to America.

Among these: the Land Rover Freelander, a small SUV-cum-station wagon and Toyota RAV4-fighter expected to sell for about $25,000. Spokesmen say it will arrive in the United States, probably with a V-6 engine replacing the current four-banger, in 2000.

Then there's the Mercedes A-Class, a small and upright van-sedan for commuting in cluttered cities and engineered for multiple power sources--gasoline, diesel or electricity. "It's not a matter of if the A-Class will arrive in the United States," said a representative of Mercedes-Benz of North America. "But when." The "when" is expected to be 2002.

With 90 horsepower and exterior measurements of a Honda Civic, the A-Class Elegance is the smallest vehicle in the Mercedes lineup. But if Volkswagen's tiny Rabbit can succeed in the United States, said Walter Greaves, director of passenger cars for Mercedes-Benz in Britain, why not a baby Mercedes?

"The A-Class was introduced to meet driving requirements of people living in crowded metropolitan areas of Europe," he said. "American cities are certainly as crowded."

Move Over, Rover--and Morgan and MG

Britain's Rover Group co-starred with Jaguar Cars at the Birmingham show, introducing the Rover 75 luxury sedan with noticeable styling similarities, inside and out, to the U.S.-bound Jaguar S-Type. That could be a result of testing the projected shape before consumer clinics in the United States.

Tom Purvis, director of sales and marketing for BMW-owned Rover, said the company "would like to think it could" export the 75 to America and that "we have done the basic work [making sure it will meet U.S. safety and emissions regulations] so that the car could be brought to the United States."

That includes installation of equipment critical to any automotive success in America: cup holders front and rear.

Purvis well understands an important dynamic of the Eurovasion. It has to do with a broadening polarization of American consumers. There are those who see cars as mere transportation appliances, and there are those more interested in cars as high-value, personal statements carrying the cachet of global recognition.

"Ask about Mercedes-Benz and the response will involve quality and durability," Purvis said. "BMW is sportiness. Jaguar is refinement. These are clear-cut brands.

"When you ask about Chevrolet, I don't know what it stands for. Except as a piece of transportation."

The Morgan two-seater suffers from no such identity crisis. From its wooden body frame, through unlockable doors to canvas tops only marginally weatherproof, the handcrafted Morgan has represented the pure British sports car since H.F.S Morgan built his first in 1935. Annual production is about 500 cars, and at times there has been a 10-year waiting list. Styling hasn't changed much since 1968. The company's last concession to modernity was to buy a computer in the late '80s.

Morgan roadsters first dribbled to America, for sale to disciples only, in 1948. The company pulled out--except for a propane-powered version available through a San Francisco importer--in the early '70s. Just one more casualty of Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation construction requirements.

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