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1982 AUTO GUIDE

Car makers are discovering a maxim lost in the fuel-frenzied early Seventies: Fun sells cars.
By  |

REGARDLESS OF bad window-sticker news, federal regulations, and bills from the orthodontist, there comes a time when a person needs a new car. If you’ve overheated on Central Expressway three times since Wednesday, the need is physical. After you’ve seen some of the newest models, it may run deeper than that.

Car costs are increasing even faster than the inflation statistics car companies cite as their catalyst. When the average price for a General Motors car hovers between $10,000 and $11,000, it’s difficult to justify trading in the old Chevy that will soon be paid for.

“There’s no harm in trying,” a still, small voice calls to you, unmindful of your falling stock and young children with wired jaws. Though those exciting days of hard-charging metal ponies under wide, black hood-stripes aren’t likely to return, car builders (not only in Detroit, but also in Tokyo, Stuttgart, and other car capitals) are striving to put the lost pizzazz back into their products. In all the downsizing and fuel-economy-at-any-cost madness, car makers are rediscovering a maxim lost in the fuel-frenzied early Seventies: Fun sells cars.

One low-dollar example of a fun-driving American car is Plymouth’s Turismo TC3. At the upper end of a three-model offering, this semi-performance car has the same body lines of the other less expensive cars.The difference in the Turismo TC3, however, is that the body graphics of the TC3 have been revamped, and a 2.2-liter power plant that dramatically increases its performance over the standard engine’s 1.7-liter fare has been installed. It offers a subtle European look with a subdued exterior appearance. This car’s precise handling in tight corners makes pushing its limits a joy.The Turismo is Plymouth’s version of the Dodge Charger 2.2, but it is currently enjoying a media blitz without boasting all the nonfunctional extras the Dodge sports. Features that enhance the understated raciness of the Turismo TC3 include steel-belted blackwall tires with raised black lettering, remote control dual-side sport mir-rors, a blackout treatment on the chrome accents aroundthe windows, and a small rear hatch spoiler that is both functional and attractive.

Chrysler is also sponsoring a revival of the convertible market this year. Ever since April 1976, when Cadillac stopped churning out its legions of soft-topped Eldora-dos, the open-car market has been abandoned to several imported makes. When the drop-top buyers sent their dollars overseas, Detroit tried to fill the convertible void with stopgap measures: moonroofs, sunroofs, and hatch panel tops.

But the first real, albeit limited, production of a soft-topper will be back in Chrysler’s lineup this year. It will be based upon the “stretched K-car” platform being readied for Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 nameplates, and is rumored to sell in the $14,000 range. Ford may also be considering soft-tops for its Mustang and EXP/LN7 twins.

In the mid-Sixties, Ford Motor Company stated all the muscle car business by presenting the 1965 Mustang to a bored public. Thus the birth of the “pony car” that created a whole new market and filled it, for a while, by itself alone. In 1982 the Mustang may do a repeat performance by featuring, as an optional drive train, a new 5.0-liter V-8 with-in publicrelationspeak-“special performance features.”

Those features translate, of course, into more get up and go on the highways and byways. The new Mustang may even bring on a mild fit of nostalgia. Its acceleration times are likely to spawn Brylcreemed memories of late-night races down the mainstreet drag.

After a two-year hiatus from the market, the big eight-cylinder power plant of a Mustang has been teamed with a manual four-speed transmission. The new Mustang sports a hefty front air dam and rear spoiler, as well as a performance engine and exhaust modifications. Its 302 cubic inches, reminiscent of the respectable 302 Mustangs of 1969, are part of a package that is the direct offspring of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations-the SVO brain trust.

SVO is the driving force, so to speak, behind Ford’s re-entry into serious car racing with their Miller Beer-sponsored racing Mustang. And SVO has used its technology, expertise, and boardroom muscle power to produce the new high-performance street car. Expect other car companies to follow suit just as they did in the mid-Sixties. Lincoln-Mercury will offer its version of the power train in a special Capri model.

As the Detroit iron pounders search for better ways to attract the buyer’s eye, they are quick to sketch designs that are pleasing and attractive; but sometimes the sporting allure of the sheet metal is lost under the hood.

Witness the Ford EXP and Mercury LN7 clones. These two cars are almost identical to Ford’s Escort and Mercury Lynx models under the hood, but on the outside the EXP and LN7 fairly shout pure sex. The clean lines and sporting flair of a two-seater easily catch buyers; advertisements liken the so-called magic of the new car -which made its debut months ago as an ’82 -to the performance and statement made by the original Thunderbird.

The comparison is valid only in the mind of the ad man. Where the original Thunderbird was a genuine barn burner with muscle to back up its exhaust-note threats, the EXP/LN7 twins fall far short of any performance statement at all. They are great for fuel economy, getting 29 mpg in EPA city testing. But when the driver accelerates from a stoplight with money on the line, he’s better off turning around at the first corner and letting the money slide.

Little is being changed on the EXP/LN7 for 1982; they began life with this model-year moniker and can barely suffer radical alterations without telling a buying public that the first models were somehow not what Daddy Ford had dreamed they’d be. If we could only combine the new Mustang engine with the two-seater EXP/ LN7 look-alikes, there would be a match for the first Thun-derbird.

If fuel economy is the objective, we can still choose a car that is fun to drive, but returns more miles per dollar than other cars, domestic or foreign. It is neither a boxy Japanese car nor a sporty German product. It’s as American a motor vehicle as one is likely to find. It manages to squeeze a frugal EPA-certified 41 mpg city and 55 mpg highway, and burns not gasoline, but diesel fuel. Introducing, the Chevrolet Chevette Diesel.

Chevy has finally taken the aging Chevette design and tested the very depths of its usefulness by dropping under the hood a 1.8-liter diesel engine, courtesy of its Japanese friends at Isuzu. In 1982, the little oil burner will receive only those modest interior or exterior changes that Detroit feels are mandatory for its new car trumpet blasts, but after the little publicity the ’81 model received, it bears mentioning here.

Chevette handling is nothing to write home about, but Chevy’s little automobile has never doubted its reason for existence: fuel economy. With the addition of a fuel-sipping diesel engine from Japan, the baby Chevy with a four-speed manual gearbox beats the highly-touted Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel by one mile per gallon. The Chevette Diesel’s five-speed transmission, also from Isuzu, offers gear ratios that make accelerating from a rush-hour stoplight no chore for the diminutive four-cylinder. It’s almost unnaturally responsive for an oil-powered car, and isn’t intimidated by either close-quarters city use or high-speed charges onto freeways. It dispels the popular contention that to drive a diesel is to sacrifice all hopes of performance.

Power steering is offered in the diesel edition of Chevrolet’s smallest car, but the option is overkill in a car with rack and pinion steering, a boast that even the Chevette’s bigger brother, the Corvette, cannot make.

Because the little car is so fuel-efficient and fun to pilot around, it’s a natural for car pooling – as long as your passengers are pint-sized. Tall drivers will want a tilt steering wheel, and as for their basketball-stuffing friends, forget it; there’s no room in back.

The Chevette Diesel, however, remains a car whose time has come -in fact, it came some time ago. It’s an American Volkswagen as worthy of the name as the German “people’s car.”

Among 1982 automobiles with sporting pretensions, uniquely new offerings are, in truth, very few and far between. But if you’ve been out of the market for a while, chances are many of the 1982 products are going to seem new.

The Saab 900 Turbo is the present-day, small-cubic-inch muscle car. It is to the Eighties what the 1964 GTO was to the Sixties. Grand performance in the wheelwells is controlled by judicious applications of right pedal pressure and timely gear changes, and is, in a word, fun.

The turbocharger is a device that uses exhaust power to turn a wheel. A compressor forces a super-rich mixture of fuel and air into the engine. The resulting performance is on a par with the big cube engines of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

A performance sedan par excellence (it was the Motor Trend magazine selection for the best sport sedan for the Eighties), the Saab 900 Turbo leaps out of traffic and away from stoplights with the alacrity of a man caught stealing chickens. It is very effective and pleasurable to drive in the city or on the highway, especially with the five-speed manual gearbox. The automatic version may be just as much fun at 30 mph and faster, but the climb to this take-off speed is lengthened by a “turbo lag” before the engine can generate sufficient exhaust to really spin the compressor. After that, however, the car will bring joy to drivers suddenly thrust into their seats as the turbo kicks in.

The turbo image is an extra benefit in these days of automotive homogeneity, as car makers here and overseas attempt to recapture exciting performance with turbos. The turbo is equated with good performance–perhaps the only high performance available with today’s engines throttled by emission controls and other plumbing -and good performance coupled with image means these cars will retain more value in the long run than non-turbocharged cars.

The same inflation that the companies cry is boosting sales prices is also boosting prices car builders themselves must pay. Even the import cars – whose reputation for quality and performance is finally being approached by domestic car builders -are vastly more expensive than their popularity lets on. They are high-mileage, well-made vehicles, but part of their original popularity was the difference between their prices and that of the homegrown varieties. Now that the Reagan Administration import restrictions are in force and the number of foreign cars will be reduced, the offshore nameplates will be even more exclusive, and therefore more expensive. Scarcity breeds demand.

This vicious circle keeps millions of development dollars working several model years. Changes can be as subtle as a slightly different bend in the chrome here and there, a newly designed seat cover, or a few new interior and exterior color choices. These are low-buck outlays for Chrysler, GM, and Ford – but especially Chrysler, who has now teetered back from the precipice of bankruptcy and is struggling back toward profitability.

This milking of a single design to provide base models for several car lines spreads the design development costs over the entire corporation instead of concentrating them in a development budget or individual car division. That’s why we have cars of obvious dual parentage such as the Chrysler Cordoba/Dodge Mirada, Ford EXP/Mercury LN7, and Chevrolet Camaro/Pon-tiac Firebird siblings.

The designing in Detroit and other styling studios during the last decade has little to do with whim. The goal has been to strip sheet metal cellulite off bloated, overweight Detroit products to help increase fuel efficiency -not to attract new car buyers. And when interest rates hit the ceiling, potential buyers were left breathless by the staggering cost of buying the money to buy the car.

It didn’t help that new car offerings were boring. Until the advent of production turbo-charging, buyers desiring performance cars had to have turbos installed by aftermarket shops to recapture lost zip. This was -and remains -a costly proposition, and one likely to cause engine damage after a time. Regular production engines often cannot sustain the stress of high-pressure turbo-charging as successfully as the factory turbo engines do.

Chevy isn’t the only car maker enamored with the little oil burners. Diesel fuel is plentiful, and becoming more widely distributed as the natural benefit of its use -high fuel efficiency-becomes better known to car buyers.

Diesels are being dropped into almost every car line made today, from Cadillac to baby pickup trucks. The reason is fuel economy, but the primary drawback of this happy alliance is that as far as fun driving goes, most diesels are strong, but slow.

Until now, about the only satisfaction the diesel driver could have was watching as those swifter than he swept past on the highway, knowing he was beating them in the mpg derby. But no longer -by putting a turbocharger on a diesel-equipped car, the high mileage of regular cruising is retained, while the driveability at low speeds is regained. The driver gets the best of both worlds.

The French firm, Peugeot, offers turbodiesels in its 505 and new European-like 604D Turbo. Other car lines featuring the “blown” diesel are Audi with its 5000D Turbo, and by mid-1982, the Renault 18i turbodiesel.

Another kind of motoring fun as valid a pursuit as any hot charge through twisty back roads, is slow and easy. Fevered brethren in Corvettes, Porsches, and BMWs miss the thrills of driving at a less than frenetic pace, the Sunday drive pleasures that come with breathing in the scenery rather than just noting its presence while streaking through it. It requires a car in tune with more mellow driving criteria.

So the big cars, downsized as they are, still have a following. In comparison with their diminutive relatives, these are four-wheel palaces, rolling luxury units. The passengers can be as pampered there -or perhaps more so (my easy chair at home isn’t adjusted electrically) – than at home.

The trimmed luxo-cruiser that makes the biggest news is the Continental by Lincoln, a “baby” with new sheet metal and a new engine for 1982.

This year marks the first time in a long while that Lincoln has offered a six-cylinder power plant. The standard transmission in the car is Ford’s four-speed automatic overdrive.

Continental’s new face features a grill that was obviously inspired by the metalsmiths at Rolls-Royce. At the rear, the “bustle back” trunk makes the new Lincoln a sibling of the Cadillac Seville and Chrysler Imperial.

The new Continental, as well as the established Lincoln Town Car and Mark VI, are available in several designer series. The interior and exterior appointments feature stylistic touches by famous names such as Cartier, Pucci, Givenchy, and Blass.

Only a four-door Continental will be offered for 1983. This car will be taking up the corporate slack when the Mark VI and town car badges are retired in the near future. At that time, a two-door model will be bred to accompany a future Mark VII car.

At Cadillac, designers are also living leisurely. The luxury division of General Motors is offering a veritable barrage of new colors and vehicle trim options, but as for substantive changes for the ’82 model year, there are few.

One interesting option is the “touring suspension,” an underpinnings enhancement that makes the big Eldorado, the only car on which the choice is standard, handle better in cornering. It’s gained an improved performance on rough roads with new, better tires and greater shock absorber control.

After a rough year when GM tried to solve operating problems by offering Cadillac V-8-6-4 customers a free extended warranty, that controversial engine is now offered only in Cadillac limousines. The standard Caddy motivator for this model year falls to the new 4.1-liter V-8 gasoline-powered engine with fuel injection and four-speed automatic overdrive transmission. Cadillac will also offer a diesel engine in the form of a 5.7-liter V-8.

J-car fever hasn’t escaped the premium car division at Cadillac, either. Introduced a few months ago as a 1982 model, the Cadillac Cimarron is a radically different approach from GM’s most prestigious division. Based on the running gear and “parts bin technology” related to the Chevy Cavalier J-car, the Cadillac edition is said to be equipped with standard engine suspension and equipment levels that its maker says will allow it to compete with sports cars like Audi and BMW.

The Cimarron is a nice car -maybe the most sensible car Cadillac has ever built. It has comfort and style, and handling that is far better than the Egyptian barge pitch and roll of the full-sized sedans and coupes. Cimarron’s engine, a 1.8-liter four-banger, is the first four-cylinder engine in a Cadillac product since 1914. The car’s standard manual transmission is the first since 1953. Shifting is easy and sure, but the car is just more than a match for the 88 feeble horses hired to pull it around.

Gas mileage may make up for the Cimarron’s lost power.

After all, this is a Cadillac, but with heretofore decidedly un-Cadillac-like EPA figures of 26 mpg city/42 mpg highway.

There are many more cars being introduced for the new model year that will make splashes, but they’re farther down the road. The new Chevy Camaro/Pon-tiac Firebird “F-cars” will make their debut in November or December, with styling that sets them apart from other sporty cars. Gone from the Pontiac Trans-Am is the gaudy “screaming chicken” hood decal in favor of a more subdued embellishment, and the Firebird will get pop-up hidden headlamps; the Camaro will not.

As the automotive world changes, we find nothing really new in the long run. Equipment changes, colors are added and sheet metal deleted. But the bottom line of all these alterations is that they are in response to consumer demand.

If you want the old-time tigers andvaroom back in your tank, stick around.The fun is coming back.

DIESEL:

Fast but not fuelish

SAYING THAT something is “the best” engenders a whole crate of cautions and “what ifs?”

What if my idea of best is the hard ride and quick acceleration of a sports car, and your definition is the soft touch of leather and the kiss of an expensive stereo? What if my best car is responsive, powerful, and yet fuel efficient, and yours must be big and substantial enough to easily maintain top highway speeds? What if I wanted a four-speed and you wanted an automatic? How could we agree?

Would we need go our separate ways, never coming closer than adjacent parking slots? Thankfully not. We can have all this at once, under one shiny hood.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SD Turbodiesel is just such a chameleon-like vehicle. It has a five-cylinder diesel engine that, through turbocharger magic, makes a relatively small 120 horsepower seem like a herd of 200. This luxurious car is a quick, responsive handler in the rush hour of afternoon traffic, but equally at home cruising at Autobahn speeds.

The list of Mercedes-Benz standard equipment features is a lengthy one, but includes air conditioning with climate and cruise control, a one-key locking.system, light alloy wheels, plasticized undercoat-ing, and the magnificent Becker Europa AM/FM stereo with cassette player.

.Electronic radios abound these days, but this gem from Becker merits special mention. It has electronic scanning and seeking, 10 programmable station selectors (six FM and four AM), one-touch volume controls, and push-button tone controls. It displays the time when asked and can even be programmed – for two different times -to turn on electrical equipment in the car.

Though it does have some of the characteristic cold-start diesel clatter, the sound is barely noticeable inside the leather-adorned passenger compartment. The four-speed automatic transmission is geared so the lead-foot driver can dash from a stop in a very uncharacteristic diesel hurry; and the turbo lag-the time needed for the turbocharger to come up to speed -is short.

Power and performance in the big 3780 pound car dovetail neatly with fuel efficiency. The 300 SD Turbodiesel gets 26 mpg in the city, the EPA people say, and 30 mpg highway.

But a detailing of the facts and figures cannot relate the pure pleasure of piloting this beautiful example of Teutonic engineering. Steering response is quick but not startling, and power reserves at speed are easily capable of handling the exigencies of crowded freeways. A mere accelerator kickdown lifts the turbocharger to rampaging heights of go-power; but when stopping becomes more important, the four power-assisted disc brakes respond sensibly to the most feather-like brush of the foot.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SD Turbodiesel cannot be just anybody’s car. Expense is relative and whether the price is high or not depends upon what you’re used to. Still, it’s a safe bet there will be more Che-vettes on the road this year than 300 SDs.

-A.B.R.

DELOREAN:

A ’damn the torpedoes1 sports car

WHAT HAS TWO wings and flies at up to 125 mph? Well, the “wings” are gull wing-style doors that open up, not out; but the stainless steel brainchild of former General Motors executive John Zachary DeLorean is alive and well after more than five years and hundreds of millions of other folks’ dollar bills. And it is rather quick.

When John Z. first displayed his prototype “DMC-12” a number of years ago, his announced goal was to build a “damn the torpedoes” sports car. “Build the car 1 want,” he seemed to say, “and forget what it costs.”

What it cost was plenty. He scaled down his original plans, and the 1982 result is the DeLorean sports car.

The car is framed on a Fiberglas skin over which are laid stainless-steel body panels. It is a beautiful car and never fails to turn heads as its distinctive wedge shape rolls down the street. But when it comes to matching the ease of a regular auto’s repairability, those stainless-steel panels will give body repairmen fits.

The car is a bit heavy in relation to its wheelbase: At an overall length of 168 inches, the car is a chunky 2712 pounds. The standard five-speed transmission, however, has no trouble putting 130 horses to the pavement in a fashion that, according to EPA figures, returns fuel economy numbers of 19 mpg in the city and about 25 mpg on the interstate, better than the Corvette.

The DeLorean’s windows are fixed in position, with only small “mail slot” openings for dispensing tolls or a driver’s license for the traffic cop. Air conditioning is therefore standard, as is the AM/ FM stereo cassette/radio, electric door mirrors, tinted glass, and one-key locking system.

The car looks bigger in photos than in the flesh-or the steel, more accurately. Sinking down into the deep leather-covered interior can make door-closing tricky, and the gull-wing doors are reminiscent of the fabled Mercedes 300 SL, a bit heavy even if passengers are assisted by gas struts.

DeLoreans are being sold right now by dealers who had to queue up years ago with $25,000 in hand for the privilege. Cars have already been delivered to West Coast customers. In fact, a DeLorean was seen on a North Carolina used-car lot not long ago, selling for $33,900.

DeLoreans are built outside of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and probably provide the single white flag in the bitter dispute between Protestants and Catholics there. Both faiths work the DeLorean plant and because John Z. provides the few steady jobs in the area, the after-work clashes have not yet affected his plant.

The steel sports car is likely to be afavorite with the folks who buy things forthe “have” value, but whether the DeLorean can survive past the three yearssome have predicted for its demise remainsto be seen. No one knows if the car will sellwell enough for the investors to get theirmoney back. But one thing’s for sure -it’sselling now. -A.B.R.

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