Automakers go into high gear for '93

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DETROIT -- If you think it's tough to choose a new car now, just wait till you see what's coming.

More sedans, sports cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles are on the way.

Seven of the world's biggest automakers are showing off some of their 1993 models at the North American International Auto Show, one of the world's top three annual car shows. Auto writers from around the world are being given a preview this week, and the show opens to the public today.

The most important '93 models are from the struggling Chrysler Corp., the smallest of the "Big Three" U.S. automakers.

The new '93 Chrysler products are three sedans: the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde. A new Chrysler New Yorker will follow in the '94 model year.

These cars, which Chrysler calls the LH series, are widely seen as the company's last chance to survive.Chrysler has been successful with Jeeps and with its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which dominate the minivan market. But its sedans -- traditionally an automaker's bread and butter -- are based on the outdated K-car design of 1980.

"The LH platform is crucial if Chrysler is going to stay in the car business and be successful," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

The LH cars are about the same size as the Acura Legend sports sedan, made in Japan by the Honda Motor Co. And that's no coincidence.

For the LH cars, Chrysler chose the best-selling Legend as the car it needed to equal in terms of performance, handling quality and dependability. Chrysler's goal is to sell the new sedans for about half of what it costs to buy a Legend.

The Acura costs more than $30,000. Chrysler is aiming for a base price of around $16,000. Prices won't be announced until a few days before the cars go on sale in the fall, but company officials already are claiming victory.

"Success is a foregone conclusion. The quality is world-class, and the price is very low," Chrysler President Bob Lutz said.

Chrysler has spent $1 billion to bring the four new sedans to the market, Mr. Lutz said.

Although Mr. Lutz may be confident about the LH cars, Mr. Cole is more conservative. "They are very attractive products, but there are a lot of attractive products in the marketplace today. So, Chrysler isn't walking into a game that is empty of competition."

Chrysler plans to begin production in the summer and to introduce the four sedans in the fall.

Chrysler isn't the only company making news at the auto show this week. Here's a look at the other 1993 models:

* Mercedes-Benz showed its 600 SEC, a big coupe powered by a V-12 engine. It's expected to cost more than $100,000 when it goes on sale later this year. The light gray display car featured fat tires, a sloping nose and very little chrome. It may be the smoothest, most aerodynamic shape yet from the German automaker.

* Saturn, the newest division of General Motors, pulled the wraps off a small station wagon. The car is about the size of the Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer wagons, and it is based on the Saturn sedan. There's no firm word yet on prices, but the wagon probably will range from $11,000 to about $14,000 for loaded versions. Officials said the car will be available in two models.

* Rolls-Royce showed off what must be the equivalent of Buckingham Palace on wheels: its new $310,000 Silver Spur II Touring Limousine. Power comes from Rolls' ancient but trusty 6.7-liter V-8 and four-speed automatic transmission. On the inside, the car is furnished with such amenities as a color televi

sion set with VCR; a stereo system that includes CD and cassette players; an intercom; two air-conditioning systems; a glass partition between driver and passengers; a fold-away cocktail cabinet with a glass decanter and tumblers; a refrigerator; and dining trays. A fax machine is optional. If you are in a hurry for one, forget it. Rolls is building only 10 for the United States, and each is expected to take six months to assemble.

* In March, Japan's Nissan will finally give its Infiniti dealers a luxury car that turns heads for the right reasons. The new J30 mid-size luxury sedan looks like it has all the ingredients to be a smash. Aerodynamic styling is evident from nearly every angle. The car's thin orange and red taillights run the width of the rear end and angle sharply into the rear fenders for a striking appearance. The J30 should be a potent match for such cars as the Mitsubishi Diamante and Lexus ES 300. It's the first Infiniti with elegant looks. The J30's price probably will fall somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000.

* The Mercury division of Ford will enter the minivan wars with the Villager, a seven-passenger people mover that takes the company in a new direction. It's Mercury's first van. The Villager appears close in size and styling to the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager -- especially in the lights and shape of the rear door.

The van is the result of a collaboration between Ford and Nissan. Nissan designed and engineered it, and Ford will build it. Villager will go on sale in August. At the same time, Nissan will also sell a version of the Villager under the name Quest. No prices are yet available.

* Cadillac showcased its technology in the 1993 Allante luxury convertible. Later this year, Cadillac's rag top will roll into showrooms with a new 32-valve, 290-horsepower V-8 engine called the Northstar. This is Cadillac's engine for the future. It is also scheduled for the '93 Seville and Eldorado. Cadillac engineers at the show say the new V-8 is America's answer to the smooth and powerful V-8s sold in the Lexus LS 400 and Infiniti Q45 luxury cars.

* With its new Grand Cherokee, Chrysler's Jeep division looks to be gearing up for a run at the best-selling Ford Explorer. The Grand Cherokee is much more aerodynamic than the old Cherokee. The interior is a fake wood and leather affair with European-looking gauges and switches. The rear tailgate area bears a strong resemblance to that of Chrysler's minivans.

* Mazda finally has come up with a unique shape for its RX-7 sports car. The 1993 RX-7 is the third generation of Mazda's rotary-engine sports car, but this time around the car doesn't borrow its looks from any other manufacturer. The new model is wider, lighter and shorter than the car it replaces. And it's faster, too. The new car sports a 255-horsepower twin-turbocharged rotary engine. Mazda also showed its new MX-6 sports coupe. With its sloping roof and large rear window, the MX-6's styling seems to have been inspired by BMW's $90,000 850i coupe.

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