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In the 1990s, the auto market has remained on a pretty even keel. Trucks keep growing as a percentage of the overall market, while sales remain steady and strong. As 1998 begins, there is only the first hint of weakness in the growth of the spot-utility segment. But a bevy of new products and extremely bountiful profit margins will keep this arena moving for years to come. Increased competition may lead to better deals for consumers, but that situation is just starting to appear on the horizon.
Domestic versus import wars remain active. But the battles are changing. Most of the cars that Toyota, Honda and Nissan sell here are now built in the U.S. BMW and Mercedes-Benz operate factories in the U.S. heartland, while domestic nameplates are being built in Mexico. Currency fluctuations have seen values rise for import brands. European makers are adding sales faster than brands from any other continent. Even Volkswagen is seeing significant growth and is poised for a more energetic comeback into the American mainstream.
Car design itself is changing. Smaller niche markets are becoming more interesting and continue to diversify the market. But when new shapes like the Ford Taurus flounder badly, all manufacturers become wary of challenging convention in mass market segments. It gets harder to make a statement without losing some practical or financial aspect of the equation. Then again, it has always taken either more risk or more money to stand out–and that’s not changing.
Will Nostalgia sell? Volkswagen is betting that “the Bug” will. When the new Beetle arrives this spring, it will have only its styling in common with the car that once epitomized affordable driving in America. Rather than the crude air-cooled rev-engine machine of the post, the new version is a thoroughly modern car. And it’s still cute!
The times–and inflation–have pushed the starting price upward from its $4,000 range in the ’70s to $15,700. For this, you’ll get the basic underpinnings of a Golf, including a I IS-horsepower four-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive. You ton also buy a frugal 90-horsepower diesel version now or one with a more powerful [SO-horsepower engine later in the year. Rather than performance, the new Beetle will be marketed on sentimental fashion, complete with a bud vase.
From the familiar fender bulges to its round-house roof line, the Beetle aims to please the visual senses. There is simply no part of this car that isn’t adorable. Yet it’s also more sensible than most two-door compacts, with a roomy luggage compartment and comfortable seating for four. Handling is responsive, with a firm suspension and large fender-filling tires. Its most endearing feature, however, is that this will be the cheapest, most practical car, guaranteed to turn heads on the rood. www.vw.com
As recently as a year ago, many experts would have scoffed at the idea of a Volkswagen that was ready to compete head-to-head with the best midsize and Honda. But the Passat is earning believers. It has all the practical features of ample room