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Carmakers gear up for four-wheel-drive push

With everyone from Ford to Mercedes-Benz developing their own versions, four-wheel-drive is likely to be one of the hottest-selling passenger car options in the 1990s. In conventional automobiles, power from the engine is channeled either to the front or rear wheels. As the name implies, four-wheel-drive - or as they are often known, all-wheel-drive - systems apply power to all four wheels at the same time.

Conventional power trains are usually sufficient in most driving conditions but are far less stable than 4WD when driving on sand, gravel, snow, or ice.

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Because it is often used for business or pleasure in adverse conditions, four-wheel-drive has long been a staple on pickup trucks and Jeeps. According to a new survey by Autofacts Inc. of Paoli, Pa., 88 percent of the light trucks sold in the United States last year were equipped with 4WD. Overall sales will increase by 1995, though that percentage may not change much because of the growth in the light truck market.

The biggest sales gains will be made in the passenger car field. Last year, the study shows, sales totaled about 179,000 autos. But by 1995, that should grow to over 1 million, with sales to a broad cross-section of buyers.

``You've got the potential of selling to the mass, security-oriented market, as well as the enthusiast market,'' says Autofacts president William Pochiluk.

Originally introduced on the Jeep just before World War II, 4WD did not appear on passenger cars in any real volume until the early 1970s, with the debut of the Subaru nameplate. (Subaru vehicles are built in Japan by Fuji Heavy Industries.) Subaru's passenger car sales last year totaled 183,242, more than half of them equipped with some form of four-wheel-drive.

``Four-wheel-drive is not the easiest thing to market,'' says C.D. (Doug) Mahin, a vice-president of sales and marketing for Subaru of America, ``because those who don't have it usually aren't aware of why they need it.''

But Dave Sippel, another Subaru vice-president, says company studies found that ``of those who bought our four-wheel-drive (models) ... 99 percent said they would buy another four-wheel-drive'' Subaru or another brand.

With that type of response, it's not surprising so many other manufacturers are getting their own 4WD vehicles out of the design studios and into dealer showrooms.

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One of the first to take on Subaru was West German carmaker, Volkswagen. VW has several Syncro models, and its Audi luxury car subsidiary sells an all-wheel-drive passenger car dubbed the Quattro.

Mercedes is selling a 4WD luxury car in Europe and will begin marketing in the US later this year. BMW, Peugeot, and Renault, also plan to bring over 4WD models. The Japanese are moving deeper into the market. Toyota has one four-wheel-drive model, and will add a 4WD version of its Tercel in the fall. Honda has a 4WD station wagon, and will also be expanding its line-up in the near future.

Though they lead the field in light trucks, American carmakers are running behind their foreign competitors when it comes to passenger cars, Pochiluk notes. Ford introduced its first all-wheel-drive vehicle a few months ago, a version of its compact Tempo model. It is developing 4WD options for its Taurus and Thunderbird.

Chrysler is expected to introduce a four-wheel-drive version of its mini-vans and may also add 4WD to some of its passenger cars, such as the sporty Dodge Daytona. (Chrysler has built four-wheel-drive powertrains for American Motors and General Motors trucks for years).

As for the nation's largest carmaker, Pochiluk says, ``GM is lagging behind by perhaps several years.''

David Hansen, marketing and product planning director for the Pontiac Division, says he hopes to see a four-wheel-drive version of the popular, mid-size Pontiac 6000 STE ``within the next year or two,'' and there is the possibility that other models could follow if sales prove strong. However the STE version will be available in extremely limited numbers, perhaps no more than 6,000 units a year, meaning GM may not be a significant force in the 4WD market until the early 1990s.

That is something that many GM engineers and market planners admit could pose a problem. ``GM needs something like four-wheel-drive to re-establish the image that we can do some good things, just like our competition,'' Mr. Hansen says.

Not all four-wheel-drive systems are created equal. Some, such as the Audi Quattro, are full-time, always operating in four-wheel-drive. Others, such as the Ford Tempo, are part-time, used briefly when driving on an unplowed back road or a muddy lane.

The all-wheel-drive Ford Tempo carries a $1,734 premium over a conventional, front-wheel-drive model. (That figure includes other options as well). The Mercedes 4WD system is expected to add an extra $6,000 to the price tag when it debuts in the US, but other 4WD models will offer the option for as little as $750.

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