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Carmakers Find Big is Beautiful

ANY resemblance to a yacht on wheels is clearly intentional. The Buick Roadmaster is for people who like room. Lots of room. At 4,061 pounds and 216 inches overall length, the six-passenger Roadmaster sedan is ``the largest car on the road,'' Buick general manager Ed Mertz brags.

What's more, Buick will introduce a Roadmaster wagon next fall. Big enough to tow a large boat - and store a life raft in back.

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If you're not partial to Buicks, don't worry. There are a lot of other full-size cars on the road these days. In fact, Detroit is in the process of introducing more newly redesigned large cars than at any time in the last 25 years. Ford has the new Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis. Oldsmobile has the 98 and 88. Pontiac will offer a completely restyled Bonneville in October. And Chevrolet recently took ``Car of the Year'' honors from Mot or Trend magazine with its aerodynamic Caprice Class LTZ.

But wait. Aren't the carmakers worried about rising oil prices, and new fuel economy standards? Indeed they are. But since it takes at least four to five years to get a car from concept to production, they began designing the new generation of ``land yachts'' in the mid-1980s, just as fuel prices began plunging.

Until last Summer, just before the invasion of Kuwait, it looked like the new models would arrive just at the right time. American motorists have grown tired of small cars, and have been trading up. Then, last Winter, oil prices shot through the roof in anticipation of the war. The economy fell into recession, and everyone stopped buying cars.

Well, almost everyone. Curiously enough, the market for large cars remained surprisingly stable, as ``good or better than a year ago. And that's not what you'd expect in a year where we've experienced recession and an increase in fuel prices,'' says Gary Heffernan, large-car program manager for Ford.

Prodded by the new arrivals, demand for large cars could wind up growing by 100,000 units or more this year. And that could boost the full-size segment's share of the overall market to 10 percent, perhaps even 11 percent, compared to 9 percent in 1990, estimates Stephen McAvoy, marketing manager for Chevrolet.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to a few decades ago. In 1960, two out of every three cars sold in the US were full-sized. In 1972, just before the first oil crunch, the market share was still a solid 37.1 percent. Within three years, that had tumbled to 17.4 percent, as $1-a-gallon gas had buyers rushing into econoboxes.

Big cars, like the V8 engines that power most of them, were expected to vanish entirely by now. But everyone was counting on gas at $2.50 a gallon or more.

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Even at $1.10, energy still poses the biggest uncertainty for large cars. Some lawmakers are pushing to slash US dependence on oil. The Bryan Bill, a popular Senate measure, would boost the current 27.5 mile-per-gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to 40 m.p.g. by 2001.

To meet that goal, Ford Chairman Harold Poling says the biggest car would have to be no larger than a Tempo - two-thirds what a Crown Victoria weighs.

Even if a more modest CAFE bill passes, ``we would expect the full-sized market will be sharply curtailed,'' says analyst William Pochiluk of Autofacts Inc.

Automakers also face the challenge of attracting younger buyers who are accustomed to small cars. The large car most likely to move the demographic needle is the top-line 1992 Bonneville - the SSEi. Its surprisingly curvaceous exterior surprised most auto writers when it was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February. The interior is praised for its ergonomic, European styling. And the engine and suspension are tuned for performance.

Of course, as Baby Boomers expand their fledgling families, they may find the ample room of the full-size car as appealing as their parents did. It's not easy taking a couple toddlers on vacation in a compact, especially if you're also trying to tow a boat.

The current emphasis on safety may also win young buyers. According to a recent Insurance Institute of Highway Safety report, nine of the 13 cars with the highest death rates were small. The others were midsize.

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