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Nashville Scene The Big Woo

Who is Daewoo Motor America?

By Marc Stengel

JULY 13, 1998:  Over the past month, I've been invited to participate in what Daewoo Motor America is calling a "sneak preview" of the company's three new vehicles that will go on sale in the U.S. Aug. 28. In quick succession, I have driven Daewoo's Leganza, Nubira, and Lanos models. I have been mightily impressed by some aspects of these cars; and I have vigorously scratched my head about some other of their aspects. My impressions follow, of course. But the real story is much more difficult to fathom: Who are these people, and why dare they burst onto America's crowded automotive scene with such unorthodox and ambitious ideas?


Leganza sedan

First, the cars: At the upper end of the Daewoo spectrum is the oddly named Leganza sedan, which is meant to represent the company's unique linguistic interpretation of de luxe. The four-door midsize sedan is indeed rich in standard amenities: power everything, standard air, ABS, four-wheel independent suspension, 100-watt, 6-speaker stereo/cassette (which will accept a single CD player or multi-disk changer). The only options are a sunroof, cruise control, and traction control, although buyers must also choose between a five-speed manual transmission and four-speed auto.

The car, proudly wearing sheetmetal tailored by ItalDesign of Italy, is certainly eye-catching, but more for its present novelty than for a timeless sculptural brilliance. There is indeed a European look to this car, but more of the Gallic or Italian variety that most Americans rarely either see or seek. A big chromium grille is a bit too ostentatious, too toothy, too smug. Apparently, Daewoo cribbed a page from equally unsubtle Lincoln in this gaudy homage to conspicuous consumption.

Ironically, the Leganza's purchase price tends to minimize consumption. In advance of model-specific window stickers, Daewoo has only announced ranges of prices, and for Leganza, the range is just $15,000 to $20,000. That's incredible for a Camry/Maxima/Accord-sized sedan. But there is an asterisk: A 2.2-liter German-built four-cylinder is the only engine offering, and its scant 131 horsepower is woefully underwhelming for this class of car.

Oddly, the radio is actually the most apt symbol for the Leganza. It features myriad equalization settings and "sound profiles": You can fiddle with "reverb" to pretend you're in a cathedral-sized hall or a Bluebird Cafe-sized boite. It's interesting, even enjoyable, but it's still just pretend.


Nubira sedan, hatchback, and wagon

As if to paraphrase R. Buckminster Fuller's famous self-profile, "I am not a noun but a verb," Daewoo named its mid-level offering Nubira, which means "to go everywhere" in Korean. The model I drove was the five-door wagon, comparable in size and impression to the recently departed Accord wagon from Honda, or to Saturn's SW1/SW2 models. I feel absolutely no shame in admitting a hearty preference for this new Daewoo--both among the other Daewoo models and within the wider marketplace. Before prices were announced, I surmised that the window sticker would have to be this car's most important component. Now that a price range of just $12,000 to $14,000 has been released for Nubira, this model may well represent the company's most potent assault upon the status quo.

In contrast to the frilliness of Leganza, the Nubira wagon features clean, simple, even plain styling that is nevertheless eloquent. Although it displaces just 2.0 liters and issues 129 horsepower, the Nubira's four-cylinder engine feels substantially perkier in this slightly smaller car. The wagon design is wonderfully versatile for people and things; handling is nimble, and accouterments are abundant. In fact, Nubira features virtually the same set of standard features and available options as Leganza. Even the haughty grille looks more reasonable and subdued in the overall context of the car's sleek, uncluttered exterior. In virtually every way, Nubira is dressed for success; with its impressively affordable price, it may not quite "go everywhere," but it should go quite far.


Lanos sedan and coupe

For its $9,000 to $12,000 price range, Lanos should attract a following simply on the basis of price alone. Just as virtually every other carmaker is abandoning the under-$10,000 category, Daewoo steps up with a twin-airbag, ABS-brake, four-wheel-independent suspension model whose 1.6-liter four-banger makes 105 horsepower. The three-door hatchback's tiny exterior dimensions belie a roomy, four-passenger interior--the Lanos coupe is arguably more compact than sub-compact. I probably would have enjoyed the five-speed manual more than the four-speed auto transmission, which seemed to rob so much of the engine's "oomph." And I definitely could have done away with the kiddie-style upholstery pattern, which looks like a cross between spray-painted graffiti and Stone Age cave drawings.

In performance terms, I prefer my tiny cars to offer a little more precision in road-holding; in other words, the suspension of the Lanos seems biased more for a softer ride than for taut handling. And with the auto tranny in "Power Shift" mode, the little twin-cam engine revs up to such a frenzy between shifts that I feared it might soon become a little hand grenade. There's no denying, however, the Lanos' favorable prospects as a first-car fixture on college campuses. Just beware the Classics students who challenge Daewoo's assertion that "the name Lanos is based on the Latin word for 'pleasure' ": A more precise etymology nominates "languor" and "languish" as protonyms.


The rest of the story

When Daewoo models appear in the fall, they will come ashore initially at 14 company-owned stores located primarily in California, the Northeast, and the Southeast. The closest to Nashville will be Atlanta. More cities and broader coverage are, of course, planned; but some 34 states currently outlaw or discourage manufacturer-direct auto sales (although Tennessee is apparently not one of these). Daewoo's unorthodox, one-price, no-haggle sales approach will face daunting challenges until its promised second wave of traditional, franchise dealerships follows its first wave of company-owned stores.

Just the same, the company promises unprecedented emphasis on customer service, and to that end has devised two unusual programs. The first is its contract with Boston-based Cross Country Automotive Services, which will provide nationwide service for routine maintenance and 24-hour, 365-day emergency assistance. A vehicle purchased in Atlanta but "living" in Nashville, for example, will theoretically suffer no compromise in service support or warranty protection. Accredited garages affiliated with Cross Country will serve as surrogate factory-authorized service facilities.

Another eyebrow-raising concept is the Daewoo Campus Advisor (DCA) program. This represents a cadre of college students, trained in the U.S. and Korea, who sell cars "on campus" at colleges and universities located in Daewoo's dealership cities. The company is aggressively recruiting DCAs (via toll-free phone, 1-800-966-1775, or the Web, http://www.daewoous.com.), and believes this variation on word-of-mouth marketing and door-to-door sales is what's necessary for Daewoo to break into America's mature and crowded auto market.

To date, Daewoo's tentative first steps into the U.S. have met with derision and dismissal from competing automakers and their dealers. "Big Woo" is their typical response to the secretive, incremental rollout of these extremely affordable Korean newcomers. Come August, when the cars finally go on sale, it will be interesting to see if the company's careful planning and unusual tactics are able to transform "Woo" into "Ooo," followed by "a-a-ah."

Off the floor


Going...going...gone!

Michael Richardson, auto auctioneer extraordinaire and founder of Anglo American Auto Auctions (now ADT Automotive), will bring the gavel down on a 40-year career when he resigns July 31 at age 61. Widely regarded as one of the nation's--indeed the world's--driving forces in organizing and professionalizing wholesale auto auctions, Richardson moved to Nashville from his native England in 1982 and set about growing his auction company into the nation's second largest.

According to the trade paper Automotive News, Richardson has been a leader in "[solving] two problems that had given the auction industry a black eye: odometer tampering and salvage title fraud." Thanks in large part to his behind-the-scenes efforts, Congress passed the federal Truth in Mileage Act in 1986. Currently, a government task force is still working to create a salvage title law for uniform application in all 50 states. Richardson, who maintains homes in Old Hickory, Tenn., and Sperecedes, France, is known for his interests in Harley-Davidson motorcycles and fine vintage wines.


More than a just paper cut

There have been three reports of severed fingers among 15 incidents of verified injury caused by removable seats in Chevrolet Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette minivans. In response, General Motors is voluntarily recalling 152,000 of the affected 1997-98 models to make safety modifications. The problem stems from attempts to remove second- or third-row split or bench seats while "tumbling" the seats forward. Fingers placed completely under a "paddle switch" under the seat risk being cut or severed. A protective cover for the switch should eliminate the risk and will be installed at no cost to the owners, but the necessary parts will not be available at least until August. (There is so far no mention of whether the UAW strike might be in part responsible for the delay.) Meanwhile, June sales of Chevy's Venture were up a striking 98 percent, representing the minivan's fourth monthly sales record in a row.


Unholy alliance

According to the trade publication Advertising Age, GMC is bolstering the image of its newly redesigned pickups at the expense of identical twin models at Chevrolet: "According to USA Today, GMC is touting itself as 'professional grade' to bolster the false impression that GMC pickups are mechanically superior to Chevrolet. But both pickups are built in exactly the same way."

Ironically, both trucks are also among the last GM vehicles to remain under current production in Canada as the company imposes plant shutdowns throughout North America in response to UAW strike actions. Apparently, so important are truck sales to the Big Three automakers--and so crucial is GM's truck makeover for the '99 model year--that the Nero who's in charge at GMC will blithely fiddle around with artificial product distinctions that disparage sibling Chevy models while the rest of the red-hot truck market burns along at a record pace.


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