- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

The success of the big rear-wheel-drive luxury cars from Europe and Asia finally has penetrated the mind-set of America's domestic industry, and you can expect a flood of such models from Detroit in the near future.

New rear-wheel-drive models are on the drawing boards for Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler and Dodge and for Japan's Infiniti, Acura and Mazda.

The domestics may be saying a permanent goodbye to front-wheel drive as they target affluent buyers who have been flocking to Mercedes-Benz and BMW models in recent years.

Future product plans show that more than 10 rear-drive sedans are likely to bow during the model years of 2002 through 2004. Jim Hub, general manager of Motor Werks of Barrington in Barrington, Ill., told Automotive News, an industry journal: "The Germans are rear-wheel drive, and the Germans have been the ones dominating the luxury segment." Mr. Hub's dealership sells Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, Honda, Saab, Oldsmobile, Infiniti and Cadillac.

Merrill Lynch auto analyst John Casesa agrees wholeheartedly: "Everyone is aiming at this affluent, sophisticated customer in the luxury-car market who prefers rear-wheel drive. Rear-wheel drive handles better, and new technology like traction control and stability control have made it a better year-round configuration. So some of the disadvantages have been mitigated by these technologies."

Cadillac and Lincoln stylists are attempting to reinvent the brand with new models that boost power and handling to match what is offered by their German competitors.

Dodge and Chrysler are joining the rush to rear-wheel drive with full-size, sporty V-8-powered performance sedans. DaimlerChrysler is expected to adapt a new five-speed automatic transmission from Mercedes-Benz's new six-speed automatic. A rear-wheel Infiniti is being planned and is based on Infiniti's XVL concept car. Acura may replace its flagship RL with a V-8-powered rear-wheel-drive sedan.

Buick also is considering moving its flagship Park Avenue to rear-wheel drive. "I think there's a cachet in RWD," said Antonio Veri, assistant Park Avenue brand manager. "All of your prestige vehicles, such as BMW and Mercedes, have RWD."

There is some fear that switching to rear-wheel drive will scare away some old-time buyers. Sales of Cadillac's highest-volume car, the DeVille, which reached 90,755 last year, are up 16 percent this year. The DeVille is a front-wheel-drive car, and in its DST version, it can stick with most rear-drive models. The problem is that most DeVille buyers tend to be older.

Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich., asks: "Do you make the next-generation DeVille RWD? Do you risk alienating your buyer base? It's not just that it's a high-volume car. It's one that arguably has buyers who are least interested in change. Yet Cadillac has to change the brand for people to consider [it] on a global basis."

The DeVille was redesigned for the 2000 model year, so Cadillac has time to think through any decision on change. At this point, Cadillac is leaning toward sticking with front-wheel drive when the replacement time comes.

"At this point in time, I would say yes," said Dennis Mooney, General Motors' executive director of vehicle integration engineering. He said GM is conducting research before making the decision.

"Look at how many front-wheel-drive vehicles we've sold in the last 10 years," he said. "Right now we still think there's a market out there for FWD, particularly in areas that have bad weather."

The other side of the coin is falling sales for the makers of American luxury cars. Cadillac's car sales excluding light-truck sales are down 40 percent from a decade ago. The same is true at Lincoln. While the two domestic carmakers struggle to make a decision, both BMW and Mercedes-Benz are setting car-sales records.

BMW sold 153,658 cars in 1999, up 16.8 percent from the previous year. Mercedes-Benz sold 144,231 cars in 1999. Mercedes had record car sales in 1997, 1998 and 1999 and, like BMW, is poised to set new records in 2000. All Mercedes models are rear-wheel drive, and three models have an all-wheel-drive option. All but three BMW 2001 cars are rear-wheel drive; those three are all-wheel drive. The third German luxury automaker, Audi, offers some front-wheel-drive models, but all its cars can be equipped with all-wheel drive.

"Real or perceived, RWD is important to [luxury buyers] from an image and performance standpoint," GM's Mr. Mooney said. "If you look at the sheer volume in an 18-million-unit market in the U.S., it is not a huge number, but it is important. The buyers are affluent, and it's a segment of the market you want to participate in."

The move to front-drive cars began with the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. Both were well-received by the automotive press, but the wholesale shift to front-wheel-drive cars didn't come until the late 1970s.

First came the Japanese compacts, and the luxury makes eventually followed. Part of the shift was brought about by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' oil embargo in October 1973.

Front-wheel drive allowed automakers to slim down their gas-guzzling cars by eliminating the drive shaft and rear differential. The elimination of the tall drive-shaft hump down the center of the interior also provided more comfort for passengers.

Another advantage, at least in the nation's Snowbelt, is that front-wheel drive offers improved traction because of the weight of the engine on the front tires. This is important on wet and snow-covered roads.

Industry experts say technical advances are making rear-drive cars attractive again. Overall weight can be controlled using lighter-weight materials in other areas of the vehicle.

Automakers say stickier tires; stability controls, which reduce the possibility of sliding sideways; and a new generation of traction control make rear-wheel-drive cars desirable even in the Snowbelt.

Even the improved control devices are not up to current-generation front-wheel-drive standards, and some analysts are not convinced the front-wheel-drive converts of the 1980s will simply accept rear-drive cars.

Plans to emphasize rear-wheel drive are limited to wooing customers from the comforts of their luxury Eurosedans.

There also is a movement to reinvent car brands. In recent years, cars have played second fiddle to the growing truck market. "Cars in recent years have suffered from a sameness, a lack of excitement. The excitement in the past 10 years has been in light trucks,"' said George Magliano, director of automotive research at WEFA Group in New York. "Even with booming sales, you have to do things, you have to take a risk. You can't fault [carmakers] for trying something new, even if the new is old."

Cadillac is preparing a wide range of rear-wheel-drive models, including the next Seville, due out for the 2004 model year. The Cadillac Evoq, a rear-wheel-drive sports car that first appeared as a concept model, is due to go into production, and the next generation of the Catera, Cadillac's entry-level model, will remain a rear-wheel-drive vehicle.

Lincoln reportedly is developing two new rear-wheel-drive sedans expected to debut in the 2004 or 2005 model year.

Neither Lincoln nor Cadillac has made a total commitment to rear-wheel drive, however. Jim Cain, a spokesman for Lincoln Mercury, said, "We think the direction is RWD, but that doesn't mean you would necessarily walk away from the FWD if you had a successful vehicle."

The experts point out that rear-wheel-drive cars will not sell themselves. Styling and value will remain critical. They say even the sharpest-looking rear-wheel-drive car can flop if it lacks value. Another question is whether buyers will opt for a rear-wheel-drive domestic car priced at the high end of the market.

Analysts believe that to take on the Eurosedans, domestic automakers will have to price their new models at a discount when debuting them. The automakers won't be able to cheapen the models, and they will have to offer good value.

NORTH AMERICAN AUTO WRITERS SYNDICATE

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