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Battling competition from the East and West, America strikes back in the car wars, and the result is A BUMPER CORP
By Daniel Charles Ross |

In the world of automotives, there is no such thing as a quick response. New ideas move slower than glaciers; new car projects take years, exhausting millions of stockholder dollars before producing a single prototype tailpipe. But now, the car makers are ready for the Yuppies. These new and vital buyers are entering the market, and Detroit and offshore car companies are finally getting around to automobiles for the upwardly mobile. This means that the 1986 Auto Report actually has more great cars to preview than we have space for.

After years of abuse at the manicured hands of Audi, BMW and Porsche, Detroit and some low-volume European car companies are making great strides in the high-performance arena. They are using improved acceleration and handling ability to enhance the appeal of fine cars that, in many minds, hold the styling edge. Designers of historically high-performance European cars, conversely, have taken to their drafting terminals to bring new eye-catching, aerodynamic exteriors to rest atop proven mechanical bits.

The joy of the new-car season is that there are actually new cars to report, not just warmed-over versions of last year’s injustices.

The Ford Aerostar is one such new product. It’s a minivan of the type sold by Toyota and Chrysler, but with a better wind-cheating design. That it is built under the wing of Ford’s truck people testifies to its cargo-carrying ability.

The Aerostar was supposed to have been introduced some 10 months ago. Trouble started when Ford brought highly automated equipment and robots into its old St. Louis assembly plant, where the van will be built. Getting first the software and then the hardware bug-free was a chore. Ford engineering people I’ve interviewed, however, positively glow with enthusiasm for the little hauler. The wagon is little different from a family station wagon, with its many windows, electronic instrument cluster and “mouse fur” seating material. The van, a workhorse vehicle, is rattle-free and surprisingly swift.

In the technical basket this year is a brand new four-cylinder engine from Chrysler. A new 2.5-liter Four, it’s a stroked (longer piston travel) version of Chrysler’s venerable and reliable 2.2-liter Four, and it replaces the incrementally larger 2.6-liter Mitsubishi engine in car applications. It features throttle body fuel injection and produces a peppy 100 horsepower on regular unleaded fuel in such cars as the Dodge Aries and 600, the Daytona and Plymouth Lancer.

At Chevrolet, the flagship Corvette furthers its well-deserved image as a technological tour de force with the addition of an anti-lock braking system, or ABS. ABS makes it impossible (under most operating circumstances) to lock the wheels during a skid. By electronically signaling the system to pump the brakes from between nine and 15 times per second-much faster than a driver could-even two-footed panic stops result in maximum braking efficiency with no skidding. So steering or directional control is maintained, permitting the driver to steer out of harm’s way.

ABS will be available as an option on Pon-tiac’s wonderful 6000STE, where it’s known as “electronic brake control,” possibly a nod to liability potential. (If Pontiac doesn’t bill its anti-lock brake system as “anti-lock,” no one can bring a lawsuit if, for some reason, the system does lock, resulting in an accident.)

Also from General Motors nationwide for 1986 are the Chevrolet Sprint and Spectrum. Both cars are “badge engineered” in Japan for Chevy, the former by Suzuki (yes, the motorcycle people), the latter by Isuzu. The cars were introduced on opposite coasts in ’85 and were only available in a handful of states. For ’86, both cars are available at Chevy dealerships.

You’ll especially like the high-powered economy of the neat little Sprint, powered by a high-revving three-cylinder engine. The Spectrum is less spectacular. It’s little more than an efficient Oriental Chevette, built at what Detroit steadfastly insists is Japan’s “$2,500 price advantage.” But do you suppose GM is going to pass this savings along to you, the customer? In a word, no.

I MUST ADMIT that automotive journalists regularly fail to see the importance in information that isn’t a skidpad figure or 0-to-60 mph clocking, but we’re going to break with tradition this year.

President Reagan is credited with “lifting” the Voluntary Restraint Agreement this year -a trade pact that was, at best, a contradiction in terms. He did encourage its expiration. What the VRA did was to enjoin Japanese carmakers from importing more than 1.85 million cars under the 1985-86 agreement, ending March 31. The purpose of VRA was to permit domestic companies the chance to design and build a fleet of fuel-efficient small cars with which to compete against wildly popular Japanese econoboxes. The practical effect on the Japanese was that their cars, all popular to begin with, became hotter properties than ever before.

Prices became fixed in concrete instead of being negotiable, eliminating the classic American “horse trading” that is part of the new-car buying process. For the most popular models, such as the Nissan 300ZX Turbo, premiums were added to the window sticker’s bottom line in directly ascending proportion to market demand.

Japanese car dealers chose to order lots of options and expensive sports and luxury models to maintain a profit margin threatened by the VRA’s limitation on the number of units. Lesser-equipped and lower-priced, economical Japanese cars were being snapped up by a fuel-economy-crazed American public at almost any price.

The VRA was intended to give Detroit the breathing room to create its own more competitive small cars, but Detroit instead turned to Japan for small cars. GM sells no fewer than three small cars either built in Japan or in its Fremont, California, joint-venture plant under Japanese stewardship. Chrysler partner Mitsubishi (a company with its own dealer network in this country) builds sports and economy cars here under Dodge and Plymouth badges. And Pontiac, not to be outdone, is gearing up to import cars from at least one and perhaps two suppliers in Korea-one of which, Samsung, has been heretofore noted primarily for building televisions.

Ford is also getting a piece of offshore action. Mazda, owned in part by Ford, has purchased a mothballed Ford casting facility in suburban Detroit to transform into an assembly plant for a new front-wheel-drive passenger car. Both companies will sell essentially identical cars in the United States. Speculation among Ford insiders suggests that Ford’s version will debut in the 1987 season as the new front-drive Mustang.

More cars, of course, have resulted in lower prices. Japanese cars, which previously brought full sticker price plus a larcenous premium, are now reportedly being sold at as much as $2,000 under sticker. That’s horse trading.

AND ALL THE offshore news isn’t from the Land of the Rising Sun. The majority of European manufacturers will wait to introduce their new products in the latter part of this year, so a lot of the real news will have to wait until then.

The thrilling Porsche 944 Turbo was produced as a preproduction model in ’85, but relatively few of the cars are in customer hands yet. At about $35,000, few of these cars will ever see customer hands. The 944 Turbo makes 217 max horsepower from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, enough to propel this road rocket from 0 to 60 mph in 6.10 seconds, with a factory top speed of more than 150 mph. The 944 Turbo should be available to local Porsche dealers as you read this.

It would be difficult to find a more unlikely candidate for automotive excitement than Renault, but this partner of American Motors will do both companies good in ’86 with the Renault GTA Turbo. This is a car intended to beat Corvette and Porsche at their own game-and may be able to do so.

Only about 3,000 GTAs (available with or without turbo) will be brought here from a Dieppe, France, factory, but they will create a sensation when they get here. The turbo-car boasts a conservative 200 horsepower in a plastic-bodied auto weighing just 2,601 pounds. Tons of torque and a five-speed manual to put the power down will cause a lot of stoplight embarrassment for somebody in the next lane. American Motors needs this car, and so do we.

The Toyota MR2 brings back the sports car feeling as it used to be. Five-speed manual transmission, hot four-cylinder engine and two seats-what else is there? Terrific city performance and thrilling country-road capability in an almost perfectly balanced automobile create driving sensations not available in other two-seaters with sporting pretensions. Its styling is cramped on the inside, and a little Robo-tronlike outside, but it is distinctive. As an insider, you’ll want to refer to it as the Toyota Mister-2.

Check out the Volkswagen GTI carefully when considering this redesigned Golf-cum-Rabbit sporty car. Yes, it does have decent acceleration and fine, predictable handling in cornering maneuvers, but some observers (this one included) have noticed spotty quality control in some examples. Nobody’s against a cost-effective sports car, but the excitement can be diminished when ashtray lids disintegrate or upholstery stitching unravels.

One of the best cars to come out of Germany-ever-is the Audi 5000S Turbo Quattro. Consistent Audi quality is aided by a turbocharged five-cylinder engine of silky smooth operation and four-wheel drive. Power and sure-footedness make this a safe, competent touring sedan.

I’ve saved the best for last. Well, almost last. I was among the hushed, by-invitation-only crowd at the Lido de Paris introduction of the incomparable Ferrari Testarossa. Twelve cylinders scream tortured indignities from beneath flowing, blood-red bodywork in the grand Ferrari tradition. The Testarossa (for “redhead” in Italian, a reference to the color of the camshaft covers) carries into 1986 a historic lineage that dates back to the first “redhead” in 1956.

It replaces Ferarri’s Berlinetta Boxer in this country, and was designed from the outset to be sold here. It wasn’t, however, designed to be driven at full potential here; where else but in Texas, though, can you reach the full song of 177 mph in Ferrari’s top car?

Many of my colleagues at the Paris Auto Show last October were at first put off by the car’s “cheese slicer” side-air intakes, similar in form to those found on the Ferrari Mondial. But up close, this car reaches out and grabs you. The Testarossa is almost a supernatural car, designed by free spirits in Italy to be driven by mere mortals at unnatural speeds. The Ferrari GTO and Testarossa continue Ferrari’s trend toward new cars with the names of past glorious models. The GTO is faster, quicker (not the same thing) and has a higher top speed (198.5 mph) than the Testarossa for about $27,000 less, but only 200 Ferrari GTOs will be built to qualify the car for international racing, so if you don’t have a relative on Ferrari’s board of directors it’s unlikely you can buy one.

The twin-turbocharged V8 (2.9 liters) makes a hell of a boost potential. “The effect as the blowers come in,” wrote Gavin Green in the July issue of British CAR magazine, is “as though you’re in a glider in tow behind an innocent prop plane-and the tow rope suddenly becomes intercepted by a low-flying F-111.”

The only question that remains, in view of the 200-unit production limitation, is how many more than 200 need to be able to go from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds?

The line forms to the right.

Best of all, it’s a Cadillac

PICTURE THE LUXURY car market as a pyramid. Draw a thin slice across the pyramid’s base and label it “near-luxury segment.” Now draw a line just below the pyramid’s apex. In the large middle section write “luxury.” Above the apex, a tiny portion of the entire big-ticket car market, put the label “ultraluxury.” What you have now is the Big Picture According To Cadillac.

Fill in the bottom slice with Cadillac’s J-car Cimarron. Fill in the vast middle section with all the other traditional Cadillacs you’ve ever seen. Now put a single car in the tiny apex portion, a place where no other American car has ever been parked. The car inhabiting that premier location is the one shown here, the 1987 Cadillac Allante.

The Allante is a controversial hybrid automobile like none other ever built in Detroit, least of all by the staid, tradition-bound Cadillac Motor Division of General Motors. I shot the car from a hidden surveillance position near the super-secret GM Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan. One peek at Allante is enough for even the casual Cadillac-watcher to realize the extent of change going on in the car business these days.

The word “Allante” is coined from a French verb that translates roughly to “brisk movement,” although Cadillac doesn’t admit that any one word can convey this innovative car’s performance potential. If nothing else, the car is going to sell briskly because it signals a startling break from the Cadillac way of doing things-even at the rumored $40,000 to $50,000 each Dallas Cadillac dealer is going to get per unit.

Everything about the Allante is new. The starkly un-Cadillac bodies were inked by the top Italian design house of Pininfarina, and will be assembled in Italy by Pininfarina craftsmen. The coachwork will then be airfreighted to Detroit to be married with new, specifically designed chassis at GM’s spanking new “Poletown” assembly facility in suburban Ham-tramack. In addition to the Allante, other new GM luxury cars will be built there on a separate line. The showpiece, however, is this Italo-American hybrid sports car.

Hard data about the car is difficult to obtain, but this much is known. It will sit astride a wheelbase of approximately 107 inches, with an overall length estimated at about 186 inches. It will be sold with both an installed soft top and a hard top, and is aimed squarely at that ultraluxury apex on our pyramid. Al-lante’s stated target for conquest is the Mercedes-Benz 380SL.

Only 6,000 Allantes will see new driveways in the ’87 introduction year, but that could change in years to come, depending on demand. Cadillac sees the apex and the bottom slice of the pyramid exploding, according to a Cadillac spokesperson, and if the apex explodes faster than the current plan, the Allante line could be hurried up with no trouble. My unofficial estimate of the hourly build rate, based on 6,000 cars and approximately 2,000 working hours annually for one shift, is only three cars per hour. The other Poletown line, building the new Eldorado, Toronado and Riviera, will build 60 cars per hour at, comparatively, a leisurely rate.

The car will likely be powered by Cadillac’s dependable 4.1-liter aluminum V8, probably coupled toa four-speed automatic transmission, putting powerto the front wheels. Although it won’t be a sports carin the classic sense, neither is the Mercedes 380SL.But best of all, it’s a Cadillac. -D.C.R.


DALLAS BUSINESSMAN John Schneider, known for bold real estate ventures like the 550-unit Rock Creek Apartments on Belt Line, recently did something rather out of the ordinary: At age 43, he became a race car driver.

A year after his startling decision, Schneider was D-Production Class Champion in a Porsche for the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Southwest Division. He’s a friendly, self-effacing man who’s quick to point out that he is only a cog in a well-oiled racing machine run primarily by others.

Some of the others running Performance Motorsports, Schneider’s team, are the No. 1 driver Elliot Forbes-Robinson, 1982 SCCA Trans-Am Champion, and race car designer, builder and team troubleshooter Ron Nash, a ’69 physics grad from Texas A&M. Six crew members round out the team. Others, such as technical whiz Corky Bell of Dallas’ CarTech, provide vital expertise and assistance. But John Schneider is the guy we want to talk about.

Because he is a sort of a- dare we say it? –real estate mogul, Schneider has no time during the week to travel to far-off race venues to test and set up his car for combat. His Porsche 924 Turbo is tested and set up by Forbes-Robinson by the time Schneider arrives at the track. “All I’ve got to do is step into the car, qualify (by lap times’), drive the race and eet back on the plane to go home,” he explains.

Schneider often feels a little guilty about not doing more for the team, but he’s doing plenty where it counts. “The 924 Turbo is the only Porsche ever to have won a race in International Motor Sports Association,” he says. “And we won five of them.”

The showcase car of his team, though, is the potent Buick Somerset. You’ve seen the new front-wheel-drive Somerset all over. It’s last year’s brand new GM20/N-car, also available on the street as the Olds Calais and Pontiac Grand Am. In racing trim for the SCCA Trans-Am car wars, its high-output Buick V6 powers the rear wheels with technical assistance, best wishes and little else from the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan. Even with no major sponsor to pick up the enormous bills professional motor racing generates, Schneider’s team does all right.

“We’re the only non-Mercury Capri to finish in the top three of any Trans-Am race in 1985,” Schneider says with obvious pride. Capris, for the uninitiated, have been sweeping the Trans-Am like a carpet cleaner, sometimes finishing three abreast where the track is wide enough.

As we go to press, the Performance Motorsports Buick Somerset has chalked up one victory and two second-place finishes-one of the second-placers from the pole position as fastest car, finishing ahead of Paul Newman.

“Auto racing has been sort of a fantasy for me,” Schneider says. “I’ve owned a moderate assortment of sports cars over the years, and then I just decided I wanted to give racing a try. A friend recommended the Bon-durant School of High Performance Driving at Sears Point (Sonoma, California), so I went there.”

The finest moment so far in Schneider’s racing history came during the Trans-Am race at the 1985 Detroit Grand Prix. As elated factory officials looked on, Forbes- Robinson took first place in the Buick Somerset. Actually, the win was a fluke, but it all looks the same on the Scoreboard. The first car to finish was Wally Dallenbach’s Mercury Capri, but Dallenbach’s car was weighed after the race and found to be 25 pounds too light-not enough to mean any advantage in a race, but rules are rules. Dallenbach was disqualified and Forbes-Robinson was declared the winner. John Schneider himself, driving the Porsche 924, finished eighth.

Racing success is elusive and fleeting. The Porsche’s reliability was a question until Corky Bell solved a power problem by designing and building a specific intercooler system for the turbocharger. Clutches and other hardware have been additional problems. But the sterling performance of Schneider’s team and Forbes-Robinson’s Buick in Detroit may mean a turning point for Performance Motor-sports.

Schneider expects to have his own Buick SomersetRegal built for the 1986 Trans-Am season. He’s noncommittal about whether the Detroit win was a factor in this, but it’s clear the Porsche is outmodedtechnology. And at 47, John Schneider hasn’t the timeformat. -D.C.R