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Front-wheel drive; Detroit gets the jump on Japan

Has Detroit finallym hit the secret of beating the Japanese? If US carmakers can convince enough buyers that front-wheel drive is best, then they may have an advantage over Toyota and Nissan (Datsun), Japan's two largest-selling nameplates, at least for a while.

So far Toyota markets only the front-drive Tercel and Datsun, the 310. Next fall Datsun will unveil a front-drive 510. Toyota won't have another front-drive car until 1983.

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Introduction of the General Motors J-car this week -- Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, and Cadillac Cimarron -- focuses the engineering and consumer spotlight on front-wheel drive.

US automakers, thoroughly committed to front-wheel drive, are leading the pack in the "big switch." And these are full-line manufacturers, such as GM and the Ford Motor Company; in other words, companies that build the full gamut of motor vehicles from small cars, such as the Ford Escort, to the big jobs -- the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Seville.

There's no doubt about it, giant General Motors is far ahead of Japan's "big two" in a switchover to front drive. If consumers like it, then GM has a winner. By 1985 at least 85 to 90 percent of all GM-built cars will have a front-drive system. The exceptions are the full-size wagons, the Chevrolet Corvette sports car, and a Pontiac two-seater sports car due out next year. Chrysler will be entirely front-wheel drive by then, while Ford is a couple years behind GM.

In the 1982-model year, Ford says it will double its current front-drive capacity of 500,000 cars a year to 1 million as it brings out yet another version of its front-drive Escort line, a four-door hatchback.

Ford won't have another front-drive car, however, till the 1983 1/2 replacement for the Fairmont/Zephyr, code-named the Topaz.

"We have a lot of exciting stuff coming after that," a Ford spokesman asserts.

Tired of being forced off the road by the imports, the US auto industry is fighting back hard, and front-wheel drive (fwd) may give it something to crow about.

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Many automakers, both in Japan and Western Europe, already build all, or almost all, front-drive cars. Regie Nationale des Usines Renault of France (Renault), for example, has been building only fwd for many years, while Volkswagenwerk AG began its switch with the Rabbit in 1975. Sweden's Saab is entirely fwd. So is Honda and Subaru in Japan. Fiat builds some front-drive cars.

What's so special about front-wheel drive?

For one thing, motorists seem to like it. The front-drive Ford Escort was the top-selling automobile in the US last month.

As US automobiles get smaller, a front-drive configuration provides more inside space, a lower hood, and eliminates the drive-line hump. It's more complicated, however, and costs more money, but car performance is improved, especially in snow and mud.

Front-engine, front-drive propulsion is considered more appropriate for small cars than big cars even though GM has been building front-drive large cars -- Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado -- since the mid-1960s and has since added the Riviera and Seville. Other manufacturers of top-rated luxury cars, such as Daimler-Benz of West Germany, give short shrift to the concept.

By and large, there is agreement that when you go above the midpoint in the market, there are diminishing returns on fwd. Packaging gets to be very critical in the middle of the market and below it because the engineers and designers are dealing with such a short wheelbase.

"You have to maximize efficiency within the wheels," says a Ford man.

But once you get into the larger cars, packaging and weight are not nearly so critical and there are some cost and design compromises with front-drive.

In the past two years, GM alone has built more than 1.5 million front-wheel-drive X-cars and, according to F. James McDonald, president of GM, by the fall of 1982 will build 1.2 million subcompact J-cars, which it publicly introduced May 21.

J-car capacity will go from two plants now to five in the next year.

Late next fall the intermediate-size A-cars --tiac Le Mans, and the Chevrolet Malibu --will switch to fwd. Then the full-size B- and C-cars will reach the showroom a year later. The A-specials -- Cutlass Supreme, Buick Regal, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and the Pontiac Grand Prix -- hit the road in the fall of 1983 as '84 models but with new designations.

While the Ford Escort/Lynx and EXP/LN7 are front-wheel drive, Ford Motor Company is two to three years behind GM in revamping its car lines.

Long-hurting Chrysler Corporation has big fwd plans after the success of its Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon and the K-cars --Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant -- which were unveiled last fall.

"We're going to bring out brand-new front-wheel-drive models every year for the next five years," Jerry H. Pyle told the International Motor Press Association in mid-April. Mr. Pyle, then head of sales, has since left Chrysler for Toyota.

In the fall Chrysler launches the two- and four-door LeBaron, a luxury fwd car and the first fwd vehicle with a Chrysler nameplate. The Dodge 400 will be the Dodge version of the car.

A front-drive pickup truck will be built off the L-body of the Omni/Horizon sometime next year.

Before the 1982-model year is over, Chrysler will introduce the Chrysler Town and Country wagon, a sophisticated fwd station wagon.

A Chrysler LeBaron convertible will hit the road, too.

For the 1983-model year, the company will stretch the wheel base of its K-cars as well as introduce a four-door Chrysler New Yorker and the Dodge version, the Dodge 600.

The Chrysler 500, a sports car, plus a Dodge version, will reach the market mid-year in 1983.

A premium New Yorker will hit the road in 1984 as well as the T-115, a small, fwd van/wagon.

American Motors' linkup with Renault gives it a broad stepup in fwd expertise. Renault has been bui lding front-wheel-drive cars for many years.

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