Import automakers are flanking viciously held Big Three segments with cautious but significant volumes. For Detroit, the worry has to be that its traditional strongholds in light truck and minivan segments might follow the pattern of passenger-car markets of the '70s and '80s. That's when the Japanese and Europeans chewed into share - slowly at first, then with a more voracious appetite.
Motor Corp., for one, bears scrutiny. Read all about the new '99 Tundra and its importance (or lack thereof, depending upon your perspective) to the light-truck market (see p.42). But the Tundra will go where the Japanese haven't before. It's a genuine full-size pickup with an honest, workin' man's V-8, the lack of which everyone knows was the prime obstacle to Toyota's previous attempts - with the T100 - to crack the big-truck nut.
The Big Three's other eye should be onMotor Co. Ltd., gearing up to launch its first real, large minivan. Tilting at segment-leader Corp. is definitely on Honda's agenda, as it makes a point of noting its new Odyssey - not to be confused with the outgoing, scale-model Odyssey - will launch with a significant price advantage over rival domestic minivans.
The new Odyssey joins the Toyota Sienna in offering minivan buyers something that is largely lacking from the domestics: modern engine and chassis design. The Odyssey (see sidebar) is powered by a single engine choice, a 3.5L SOHC V-6 that produces 210 hp. The underneath bits include a fully independent suspension that simply outclasses the solid axles strapped on the domestic minivans. Sure,, Motor Co. and Corp. spit out credible minivans, but one does have to wonder if the same sort of "discerning" customers who started buying Accord and Camry - instead of LTD and Celebrity - might not be swayed now by similar perceptions of dynamic or technical inferiority from domestic minivans.
Next up for Trends The Domestics Should Be Watching is station wagons. Yeah, station wagons. Of course, the Europeans, the group that will largely be responsible for the success or failure of wagons in the U.S., wisely refer to them as avants (/Audi AG) or sport wagons ( ) or estates (Mercedes-Benz). Wagons - sorry, estates - and they continue to be the European rage, serving, if you will, as less profligate counterparts to North America's beloved SUV.
Audi is leading the European automakers' play to reinstate the station wagon's good name, this year introducing the gorgeously proportioned A6 Avant, only with Quattro all-wheel drive and the sweet-revving 2.8L, 5-valve-per-cylinder V-6. Also in the Audi stable is the A4 Avant, reworked this year to offer only the equally tasty - but less powerful - turbocharged 1.8L I-4 and a substantially lower price tag.
will fire off in '99 with two wagons of its own, the 528I and 540I sport wagons, respectively, fitted with either a 2.8L inline 6-cyl. good for 193 hp, or the 4.4L DOHC V-8 and its 282 soccer-mom-scaring horses. Only an inch (2.5 cm) longer overall than their sedan counterparts, the '99 sport wagons offer a unique, sliding load floor that makes grabbing things from the cargo area, particularly heavy items, less of a backbreaker.
Nor does BMW plan to give over the small-wagon niche to Audi. Joe Lawrence, 3-series product line manager, says that for the first time, a wagon variant will be included in the U.S. product plan, as BMW gradually introduces the multitude of scheduled 3-Series models to supplement this year's all-new Three sedans (see sidebar).
Strangely absent from the station-wagon game are the Asian automakers, who make a nice business of station wagons in many markets; they are particularly popular in Japan. In fact, the Japan station-wagon segment is intriguingly subdivided into some serious niches:Motors Corp., in one instance, offers an outrageous, high-performance wagon version of the Galant, complete with all-wheel drive. For some reason, though, Japanese automakers seem reluctant to follow the European lead in the U.S. - perhaps burned by their last, largely futile attempts to make a business of wagons off mainstream sedans like the Accord and Camry and Corolla.
More notable for the absence of a station wagon variant is AB Volvo's all-new S80, which becomes the flagship of the Volvo line with the demise of the 9 Series car. Volvo makes a living from wagons, so some find it odd that the S80, at least for now, is built only as a sedan. But Volvo's largest car - now a front-driver, completing Volvo's transformation into a front-drive only operation - is nonetheless technically interesting.
First, the S80 revives a drivetrain layout that hasn't been seen for decades: its 2.8L or 2.9L inline 6-cyl. engines are transversely mounted. Moreover, manual-transmission models employ an all-new gearbox Volvo claims to be the world's shortest. The S80 T6's 2.8L engine is twin-turbocharged and develops 268 hp.
Honda's Acura Div. also benefits from a new engine for '99, a tasty 3.2L SOHC V-6 fitted in the equally new TL sedan. The TL is rather convincingly remade - and more convincingly repriced - to compete with the likes of Toyota's Lexus ES300 and BMW's 3-Series. The TL gets the road-smoothing, corner-cutting 5-link rear suspension that debuted on the current Accord, as well as a reorientation of its engine to transverse placement.
Besides the new Odyssey, Honda's '99 enhancements include the discovery of a sorely needed 20 hp from the CR-V's mini-ute 2L I-4; it now grinds out a quasi-respectable 145 hp. And the Civic enjoys a few styling changes.
It seems likeMotor Co. Ltd.'s got a new Sonata flagship every other year. So guess what? There's a new one this year. Hyundai says both the 2.4L I-4 and the 2.5L V-6 are all-new engines and the styling is engaging, too. Plus, there's a fully independent suspension at each corner. If the Elantra looks different, that's due to a small facelift.
There's a new automaker on the block for '99: Daewoo America Motors. The U.S. has seen one of Daewoo's endeavors before, as the imported Pontiac LeMans. But don't take that rough effort as indicative of Daewoo's current ability to produce decent cars. The new Lanos, Nubira and Leganza all are highly credible efforts (see sidebar below) - so far perhaps the most well-developed initial model lineup from any Korean automaker.
Not so studied, perhaps, is Daewoo's sales strategy: no dealerships. The cars will be sold through representatives on and around college campuses. Service will have to be contracted for, apparently. Hmmm . . .
In the Odd Vehicles We'd Like To See Here category isMotors Ltd.'s VehiCROSS (whatever that name means). The enthusiast press says Isuzu plans to bring this space-age-looking off-roader to the U.S. in 1999; it already is on sale in Japan. The VehiCROSS engine is a 3.5L DOHC V-6 swiped from the Trooper, but the real interest is underneath, where Isuzu has thoughtfully fitted fully independent suspension.
For some import automakers, what isn't coming for '99 is news. Toyota Motor Corp., for one, is crossing off the slow-selling, silly-priced Celica GT (135 hp Toyota? Come on.). We're much more chagrined about the loss of the stupendous Supra. Last year, Toyota swallowed a huge price cut on the fast but friendly, shapely Supra, and everyone knew that was probably the bellwether for the big GT's future. Toyota, if you've got a twin-turbo Supra that can't find a home, you might want to consider Ward's for a, ah, extended evaluation retrospective. If that sounds like a compromise of journalistic ethics, we'll call the Clinton Administration for a more legally accurate excuse.
As expected,Motor Co. Ltd. also dropped the shoe on the dandy-chassied 240SX coupe and the 200SX economy coupe. But there may be hay in the '99 Frontier and its four honest doors, a truck first in the U.S. And we expect Nissan to rebound further when it launches a substantially revised Maxima next year.
Meanwhile, Toyota's Lexus Div. really did a number last year with the launch of the RX300 SUV and GS300 and GS400 sport sedans, so there's not much thunder left, aside from a nice upgrade to VVT-i variable valve timing for the ES300.
We're happy Saab Automobiles AB has reworked the 9-3 chassis to take out the heavy understeer and factor in some better steering response. The new 9-5 is just hitting the street after some initial pipeline problems, but we have to admit some in the WAW offices are lukewarm after brief initial drives. We think the station wagon version may work better for Saab's intended audience, and it's coming sometime in calendar '99.