Europeans covet U.S.

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Japanese carmakers hit U.S. shores in force during the fuel-conscious 1970s, and South Korean marques have followed in the last 10 to 15 years. New foreign competition in the U.S. car market also could come from Asia.

And the most likely candidate may be a country that already is manufacturing much of what Americans buy-China.

"When you look at their economy and their wages, it certainly makes sense that they would begin building their own vehicles," says Stephen Roulac, CEO of the Roulac Group, a consulting company with headquarters in San Francisco and offices in Hong Kong and India.

Elsewhere in Asia, "It wouldn't be surprising to see Vietnam coming to the U.S.," Mr. Roulac says. "It's a country with a great deal of capacity, a strong sense of style and tremendous work ethic."

Mr. Roulac cautions Americans shouldn't expect to be able to purchase a vehicle from China or Vietnam in the near future. It may take a decade before it will be feasible to even consider such an option.

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China would have to transform itself much like Japan did a quarter-century ago, moving from a producer of low-cost, inferior products to premium, high-quality offerings, Mr. Roulac says.

In Vietnam, the "government has to open up to become more conducive to an enterprise coming into their country and establishing a presence," he says.

In the nearer term, new incursions into the U.S. will come from the same continent that gave us our first car imports-Europe. And they're going to come from carmakers that earlier competed in, and abandoned, the U.S. market. Fiat's Alfa Romeo, Ferrari's Maserati and MG Rover Group are revving up to re-enter the U.S. market.

General Motors Corp. and Italian carmaker Fiat in 2000 linked in a venture under which GM got a 20% stake in the Fiat Auto arm. Fiat said at the time it would look for marketing synergies in the U.S. to bring back its Alfa Romeo cars, which had pulled out of the market in 1995. Current plans are to debut the Alfa Spider in the U.S. in 2005, following a European launch in 2004.

Paolo Vannini, VP-corporate communications at Fiat USA, confirms that the Alfa Spider will be "sold under the GM umbrella, but a decision as to whether it would be sold at Saab, Cadillac or other GM dealerships has not been announced." No agency currently handles Alfa Romeo in the U.S., and no review is under way.

"General Motors could arrange Alfa within premium brands. These vehicles could then be offered through an existing pipeline," says David E. Cole, director of the Center of Automotive Research at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan.

Maserati next year returns to the U.S. after more than a decade's absence. The vehicles will be distributed through the dealer network of Fiat-owned Ferrari. Ferrari took control of Maserati from Fiat in 1997. No agency has been assigned ad duties.

Another likely competitor is the U.K.'s MG Rover Group, which displayed an MGF roadster at the 2001 Society of Automotive Engineers Congress in Detroit last month. MG Rover is "very interested in returning to the U.S., but with more than one product," says Kevin Jones, product communications manager. Any vehicle introduction in the U.S. wouldn't occur before 2005.

The Euro carmakers know that success in the U.S. is hardly guaranteed. Alfa, Maserati and MG tried before and ended up departing for home. Unlike the South Koreans, and the Japanese before them, the Europeans are not eyeing the entry-level market. Rather, they would be entering the near-luxury segment that, Mr. Cole notes, is already "over-represented with brands."

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