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Looking for a low-priced car? The options are growing

UNTIL recently, the entry-level, or lowest-priced, car market had been confined to three makes: Yugoslavia's Yugo minicompact, priced at $3,990; South Korea's Hyundai Excel subcompact, starting at $4,995; and the Suzuki-built Chevrolet Sprint minicompact, at a base price of $5,380. Now, however, everybody's getting into the business of making The Affordable Car.

An explosion of new lower-priced small cars is under way, with the Subaru Justy from Japan, from $5,495, and the Volkswagen Fox from Brazil, from $5,690. Pontiac has unveiled its South Korean-built LeMans subcompact, built by Daewoo, at about $5,600. Mitsubishi weighs in with the Precis (rhymes with ``thesis''), a Hyundai spinoff of the Excel, beginning at $5,195. Not to be outdone, Toyota has launched the midyear introduction of three new reduced-price models: the Corolla FX, a base model of the FX16 built at the Chevrolet-Toyota assembly plant in Fremont, Calif.; the Tercel EZ liftback; and the Camry sedan.

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The subcompact price war ignited late last year when Nissan restyled the Sentra, assembled in Smyrna, Tenn., and Volkswagen added production of its top-selling Jetta notchback to the Golf hatchback line at its plant in Pennsylvania.

Ford, whose Escort subcompact had been the top-seller in the US until last year, has responded to the challenge of small cars from overseas with imports from Taiwan, Mexico, and South Korea. The Tracer, a subcompact spinoff of Mazda's 323, was brought in for Canadian Lincoln-Mercury dealers from Taiwan and for US dealers from Ford's new assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico. Next month Ford dealers will receive a minicar version of the 323 from South Korea's Kia Motors, of which Ford bought a 10 percent stake last summer.

A newly organized importer, Universal Motors of New York City, plans to distribute ``niche specialty'' vehicles, beginning with the Mahindra, a clone of the World War II military Jeep built in India. It goes on sale in Canada this fall and in the US a year from then, at about $8,000.

Another new US importer, Roman Motor of Miami, enters the fray with an entrant from Romania, the Oltcit, which will undercut its Yugo cousin with a $3,980 base price. Yugo of America will answer by going upscale next year with the Proton Saga, in the $5,000 range, built in Malaysia.