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In small-imports race, Yugo runs behind

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The early word on the Yugo is, well, you don't go. At least, not without a hitch. At $3,995, the import from a factory in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia, is the lowest-priced new car in America. But price isn't everything. The apparently better-made Korean import -- the Hyundai Excel -- costs $1,000 more, but as many Excels were sold in May as Yugo has sold since it was introduced last August, analysts say.

Yugo sales hit a pothole last winter after reports of poor workmanship. As sales are getting back on track, another report of low quality has been released.

A survey of 491 new Yugo owners shows 72 percent said they noticed glitches in the vehicle as soon as they left the lot. Some 87 percent reported one or more problems at or since delivery.

``That's higher than any other new car in the US,'' says Robert Martin, new-car project director at J. D. Power & Associates, a West Lake, Calif., auto research firm, which conducted the survey in January.

The Yugo's leading problems: electronics and accessories. That's not unusual for a new car, especially an inexpensive model. But the second-biggest problem was more worrisome. The survey reports that 75 out of every 100 vehicles had engine trouble. What's more, only 32 percent of the Yugo owners said their problems were completely fixed.

``The quality of these vehicles should spell doom for Yugo. It's just a matter of time before sales dwindle,'' Mr. Martin says.

Yet sales today are rebounding and have topped 14,000 since the debut in August, says Ron Edelson of Yugo of America, in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

The pace of sales slowed for a while this spring after reports that the car failed a crash test. And Consumer Reports magazine panned the Yugo in its February issue. The review described it as ``painfully reminiscent of Fiats we tested 10 years ago.''

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