No joke


THE MAN WHO brought the Yugo to America is back with another cheap, small car from far away. And whether this import also ends up being a piece of rolling junk or not, it likely marks the beginning of a trend that's no joke for U.S.-based car manufacturers.

Entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin -- who scored big with Subarus before his ill-fated adventure with the laughably low-quality imports from a Communist-era producer in the former Yugoslavia -- announced this month that he's cooked up a deal to import hundreds of thousands of Chinese cars a year as early as 2007. The five models, ranging from a compact to an SUV, would be produced by China's eighth-largest automaker, Chery.

Chery's initial selling point would be prices 30 percent cheaper than those of comparable models currently sold in the United States.

At this point, it's hard to know whether the Chinese cars will be this generation's Yugos. But the state-owned company's much newer factory is positively modern by Yugo standards. It already exports to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. One of its cars -- the QQ, selling for $4,000 in China -- is apparently well enough designed that General Motors has sued Chery, claiming it's a rip-off of the structure of the Chevrolet sold in China. And Mr. Bricklin says Chery's U.S. cars would come with a 10-year warranty.

If that sounds ominously familiar -- such warranties are common on now relatively decent-quality Korean imports -- it's because it was only a decade or so ago when their quality and prospects were not much threat to Detroit or Japanese automakers. And even if Chery flops in the American market, a wave of Chinese imports, of improving quality, is more than likely at some point not so far down the road.

Having invested heavily in up-to-date factories to meet the exploding demand for vehicles in China -- the world's fastest-growing market, with annual sales doubling over the last two years -- dozens of Chinese companies are increasingly looking for the cachet and profits of exporting to world markets and ultimately America. That's without even mentioning potential Chinese-made exports from major European, Japanese and U.S. automakers, such as VW, Honda and GM, which are building cars there. (VW now sells more cars in China than in Germany.) Save for their rock-bottom labor costs, these are hardly Third World ventures, with some aiming for production of hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles.

So hold the Yugo jokes, please. We know they're tempting. But all too many of us may be driving, if not Cherys, then Jettas or Buicks from Shanghai.

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