While the day of the "world car" has dawned at one domestic manufacturer, there has been a gradual, almost imperceptible shift in the global automotive industry toward a different kind of world car - a "world-class" car.

To view a full photo gallery of the new import models for 1981, view our photo gallery.

Unlike Ford's world car, which is the same basic vehicle built by the same company throughout the world, a world-class car is built by many different manufacturers. Yet, they all must share similar design, performance, fuel and space efficient characteristics to make them the best the world has to offer.

The Fiat Brava returns at the top of Fiat's line.

The Fiat Brava returns at the top of Fiat's line.

Last month, Automotive Fleet showed what the domestic manufacturers have to offer. The new U.S.-built cars are smaller, more space and fuel efficient, and feature technological improvements that contribute to these vehicles' world-class status. These improvements include front-wheel drive, automatic overdrive transmissions and fuel injection-attributes of a world-class car.

This month, it is the imports' turn. Some of the models pictured on the following pages are larger, more luxurious. They offer such technological advancements as front-wheel drive, automatic overdrive transmissions and fuel injection-attributes of a world-class car. The gap between import and domestic models in terms of size, technology and performance is narrowing. Imports have long ago shed the image of funny, tiny, tinny cars that have hard-to-get parts. Imports have become synonymous with quality and fuel efficiency, attributes the domestic manufacturers are emulating and improving upon as the world-class car emerges.

Import manufacturers are not resting on their laurels, however, as they continue to improve their model offerings to compete with the best in the world. Domestic manufacturers are not alone in their quest for a car that posts top fuel economy numbers. Toyota, which was the brunt of fuel economy comparison advertising during the past year has come right back with the Starlet, a new model for 1981 that is rated as the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered car sold in this market. Datsun is offering an MPG version of its popular 210 subcompact and Fiat has expanded the availability of fuel injection, which not only increases fuel economy, but performance as well.

Diesel power is another area in which the imports display their expertise. Peugeot, one of the first companies to use diesel power in cars and with over 50 years experience at it, uses a four cylinder diesel in its new 505 sedan (not a small car by American standards) and posts some impressive economy and performance numbers. The vehicle is already being used by taxi companies in the toughest cabbie market in the U.S. - New York City. Volkswagen, a relative newcomer to passenger car diesels by Peugeot's standard, has already established itself as a leader with its U.S.-produced diesel Rabbit and imported diesel Dasher. The diesel Rabbit is the most fuel efficient car on the U.S. market.

Fuel economy aside, the imports are seeking to appeal to greater and greater segments of the U.S. market. Both Toyota and Datsun are offering new top-of-the-line luxury sedans that have been tailored to American tastes. In catering to the U.S. market, car makers such as Volkswagen have gone to such lengths as establishing a U.S. manufacturing plant. They are being followed by Honda, which is opening a car plant in Ohio next year and Nissan, which is planning a Datsun truck plant in the Southeast. The presence of these makers in the U.S. and the continuing demand by American buyers for smaller, more fuel and space efficient vehicles will go a long way towards reducing the distinction between domestic and import vehicles. As world-class cars emerge, the concept of the global village may finally come to roost in the automotive industry.



With the introduction of the totally redesigned and re-engineered 810 for 1981, Datsun has completely revamped all its model lines in three years, from the economical 210 series up through the sporty 280-ZX line.

In addition to the new 810 luxury sedan, the 1981 model lineup also features a restyled 310, additional features on the 510 series, styling refinements on the 200-SX, additional options on the 280-ZX and a larger engine on light trucks.

Starting at the top of the line, Datsun's 810 has been totally restyled incorporating more angular lines to form a wedge shape that improves the car's aerodynamics. Powered by a 2.4 liter fuel-injected six cylinder engine, the 810 series is available in a four-door sedan or four-door wagon body style. Standing on a 103.4-inch wheelbase, the 810 sedan has an overall length of 183.3 inches while the wagon is slightly longer at 186.8 inches. The sedan is equipped with a fully independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes for improved handling and ride. The Maxima version is equipped with many standard accessories including air conditioning AM/FM stereo with seek/search functions and digital display, cassette tape deck, automatic electric antenna, power steering, tilt wheel, power door locks, power windows, speed control with resume feature, automatic rear window defroster, power sliding sunroof, automatic transmission, complete instrumentation including tach, voltmeter, water temperature and oil pressure gauges, reclining bucket seats and electrically adjusted outside rearview mirrors. Fuel capacity on the 810 is 16.4 gallons.

Datsun's 280-ZX returns with a more powerful engine and the expansion of the T-top roof option to include the 2+2 model. The 280-ZX is available in either a two-seat coupe or four-place 2+2 and is equipped with a new three-way catalytic converter and numerous mechanical improvements to boost the output of the 2.8 liter fuel-injected six cylinder engine by 13 horsepower. The engine is now rated at 145 horsepower at 5,200 rpm.

The sporty 200-SX which was totally restyled and re-engineered for 1980, returns with a few styling refinements and additions to the long list of standard equipment. Powered by a fuel-injected two liter four cylinder engine, all models will incorporate the twin-plug design (two sparkplugs per cylinder) used on 1980 California models. Standard transmission is a five-speed manual with fifth gear overdrive.

The 200-SX is available in two body styles - a formal notchback version and a sporty hatchback. The 200-SX stands on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and is 176.4 inches overall. The notchback has a trunk capacity of 8.02 cubic feet and a fuel tank that holds 14 gallons. The hatchback has a cargo area of 25.5 cubic feet with the rear seat down and a fuel tank that holds 15.9 gallons.

Positioned in the middle of Datsun's line is the 510 which is available in two-door notchback, a four-door hatchback or a four-door wagon. Equipped with a carbureted version of the 2.0 liter four cylinder engine found in the 200-SX, the 510 series also receives twin-plug technology to improve drivability and reduce emissions. The 510 hatchback and wagon models are equipped with split rear seats which fold down for additional cargo space. A removable package tray in the hatchback hides the rear compartment's contents and can be used as a parcel shelf. Luggage area on the two-door sedan is 10.1 cubic feet while the hatchback can accommodate up to 23.9 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seat folded down.

The 510 stands on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and is equipped with power-assisted front disc brakes. The two-door sedan and four-door wagons can be equipped with either a three-speed automatic or four-speed manual transmission while the four-door hatchback is offered with the choice of the automatic or a five-speed manual gearbox. Fuel capacity on all models is 13.2 gallons.

Sporting a new front end treatment, Datsun's front-wheel drive 310 returns with a choice of two-door sedan, four-door hatchback and two-door coupe models. All feature independent suspension and a 1.5 liter four cylinder engine. The new front end incorporates rectangular headlights, horizontal bar grille, wider appearing bumpers and revised taillights. The 310's stance appears wider and lower for 1981.

Datsun's fuel economy leader, the economical 210 returns following a minor facelift during the 1980 model year. The 210 MPG model is Nissan's fuel economy pacesetter and is powered by 1.4 liter four cylinder engine. The MPG model is not available in California. Equipped with a five-speed transmission with fifth gear overdrive, the MPG is offered only in a two-door sedan.

Higher level 210 models are equipped with a 1.5 liter four cylinder engine coupled to a five-speed manual or a new three-speed automatic equipped with a lock-up torque converter for improved economy. A Deluxe two-door version of the 210 can also be equipped with a three-speed manual, while a base version of the two-door sedan is available with a four-speed manual.


Fiat's line of two sedans and two sports cars returns with the expanded availability of fuel injection, an option that increases performance and fuel economy.

At the top of Fiat's line is the Brava, available in two- and four-door sedans. Powered by a 2.0 liter engine, the Brava can be equipped with fuel injection, an option introduced this past summer. Air conditioning with tinted glass is part of the high level of standard equipment on the Brava, which also features power steering, power-assisted front disc brakes, radial ply tires and new color-coordinated seat belts.

The Strada, introduced in 1979, also returns in two- or four-door hatchback sedans and is powered by a 1.5 liter transversely-mounted four cylinder engine. The front-drive compact, for the first time will offer fuel injection as an option for 1981. Other options include air conditioning with tinted glass, rear window defroster, three-speed automatic transaxle, quartz digital clock and luggage rack. Strada is equipped with rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel independent suspension, power-assisted front disc/rear drum brakes and five speed manual transmission with fifth gear overdrive.


Fiat's two sports cars, the Spider 2000 and X1/9 return with fuel injection as an option. The Spider 2000 is equipped with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine, while the X1/9 is powered by a 1.5 liter engine. Fuel injection, which appeared on the Spider last summer, is a new option on the X1/9 for 1981. Both cars have four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering and five-speed manual transmissions with fifth gear overdrive.


The Honda line returns in three series, the Civic, Accord and Prelude with minor styling and equipment changes for 1981. The Civic series, which was totally redesigned last year, features five models starting with the standard Civic 1300 hatchback and moving up the line to the higher trim level 1300 DX an 1500 DX hatchbacks and the top-of-the-line Civic GL hatchback as well as the four-door wagon.

Changes in 1981 to the Civic line include steel-belted radial tires on all Civic models except the 1300 hatchback, new upholstery fabric, a remote hatch release and an optional three-speed automatic transaxle on three of five Civic models.

All Civics has front-wheel drive, rack-and-pinion steering, and a transverse-mounted overhead camshaft four-wheel independent suspension. Other standard Civic features include trip odometer, front side window defrosters, reclining front bucket seats and full one piece cut-pile carpeting.

Honda's lowest-priced car, the Civic 1300, has a four-speed manual transmission, while a five-speed is standard on all other Civics. The top line GL model includes rear window wiper/washer, quartz digital clock, tachometer, day/night rearview mirror, body side moldings and trim rings.

Three models return in the Accord series a base hatchback, the luxurious Accord LX hatchback and the four-door Accord notchback sedan. All Accords are equipped with front-wheel drive, a four-cylinder 1.8 liter engine, five-speed manual transmission and four-wheel independent suspension. New interior fabrics and exterior colors are offered on '81 Accords.

Honda's sport coupe, the Prelude, returns in 1981 with appearance and accessory refinements that include an all new instrument panel design, higher level interior trim, and as an option, power steering combined with the three-speed automatic transmission.

The Prelude's crisp lines are enhanced by a new horizontal grill pattern and several new exterior colors are also offered. Variable-assist power steering is available for the first time on Prelude as part of an optional package with Honda's three-speed automatic transmission.


A totally redesigned GLC subcompact styling refinements on the 626 Coupe and Sedan, and the RX-7 sports car highlight 1981 model year changes at Mazda.

The all-new GLC has been switched to front-wheel drive and is available as a three- or five-door hatchback. The GLC station wagon returns with a rear-wheel drive layout used in previous wagon models. The front-drive GLCs are equipped with a transversely-mounted 1.5 liter four cylinder engine and fully independent suspension with coil springs and a unique rear suspension system that increases stability and control.

The GLC is available in standard, Custom, Custom L and Sport versions with varying levels of trim and features including a choice of four- or five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmissions. The five-door is available in Custom models only. The new GLC stands on a 93.1-inch wheelbase and is 159.1 inches overall. Equipped with a 11.1 gallon fuel tank, the GLC has a usable trunk capacity of 10.2 cubic feet.

Mazda's 626, introduced as a quality mid-size car two years ago, returns with exterior styling refinements and upgraded interiors for increased luxury and convenience.

The 626 stands on a 98.8-inch wheelbase and is 173.8 inches in overall length. Powered by a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine, the 626 is equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, while a three-speed automatic is optional. Luggage capacity on the coupe is 11.4 cubic feet and 11.7 on the sedan. Both versions are equipped with 14.5-gallon fuel tanks.

Mazda's only rotary powered car sold in the U.S., the RX-7 sports car returns in 1981 with a new nose treatment that integrates the front bumper with the sheet metal. Covered with resilient polyurethane, the bumpers are the same color as the body and are styled to flow into the front fenders to reduce aerodynamic drag. A front spoiler that also cuts drag is incorporated in the new front end.


The RX-7 is also equipped with a new emissions control system that improve fuel economy. That improvement, when combined with the larger fuel tank on 1981 models, extends the car's driving range significantly.


The successor to the 504 sedan - the all-new 505 is featured in Peugeot's 1981 line which also includes the return of the 504 station wagon and the 604 luxury sedan.

In the U.S., the new Peugeot is offered in four designations: two gasoline models, the 505 and 505S, and two diesel models, the 505D and the 505SD. The "S" models feature additional standard equipment such as air conditioning, power windows, electric sunroof, a digital AM/FM stereo radio with electric antenna and full wheel covers. Cruise control is also standard on the S series.

Buyers of the 505 are offered two choices of engines, the all-new XN6 fuel-injected gasoline-powered four cylinder engine or the proven XD2 four cylinder diesel powerplant.

Standing on a 107.9-inch wheelbase, the 505 has crisp lines influenced by the car's European heritage. With an overall length of 186.6 inches, the new sedan has a 13.8-cubic-foot trunk, a fully independent suspension and a 15.8 gallon fuel tank.

Options include a three-speed automatic transmission, fully integrated air conditioning system, cruise control on gas models, and four- speaker stereo. A taxi version of the 505 in both gas and diesel versions is available.

While the 504 sedan has been replaced by the 505, the 504 wagon returns equipped with the 2.3 liter four cylinder diesel powerplant coupled to a four-speed manual transmission. A three speed automatic is optional. The 504 wagon was built specifically as a station wagon with an overall length one foot longer than the 504 sedan (194.4 inches), a six-inch longer wheel-base (114 inches) and a four inch higher roofline. The 504 wagon has 81.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded down.

The rear suspension of the wagon features a solid rear axle bolstered with anti-sway bars, stabilizer bar and two coil springs to each wheel. Michelin steel-belted radial tires are standard. This heavy-duty suspension allows the wagon to carry payloads up to 1,290 pounds.

Peugeot's luxury 604 sedan also returns powered by a fuel-injected V6 engine. The 604 is equipped with a complete range of standard items.


Renault's model lineup, which features the Le Car and new 18i, will be sold through American Motors dealers as part of the two automakers; cooperative marketing and manufacturing agreement.

After nearly two years of engineering and design cooperation, the 18i four-door sedan and four-door wagon has been adapted to the U.S. market and has made its debut this fall.

The front-wheel drive car is equipped with a fuel-injected 1.6 liter four cylinder engine. With a wheelbase of 96.1 inches, the Renault 18i measures 178.7 inches in the four-door version and 181.5 inches in the four-door wagon model. Three transmissions are offered - a four-speed manual (standard), a five-speed manual with fifth gear overdrive and a three-speed automatic.

The sedan and wagon have a large glass area for good visibility, rack-and-pinion steering, side window defoggers and front and rear sway bars for good directional stability. The Deluxe model of the 18i features a number of standard items such as adjustable steering column, fabric covered individual reclining bucket seats, premium instrument panel, tachometer, oil level gauge, trunk/cargo cover area carpet, accent striping and wheel covers.

Renault's front-wheel drive Le Car, introduced to the U.S. several years ago, will continue in 1981 offered through American Motors' dealer network. Powered by a 1.4 liter four cylinder engine, the vehicle is equipped with four speed manual transmission, fully independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.

Standing on a 95.2-inch wheelbase, the LeCar measures 142.5 inches overall and features a 10 gallon fuel tank. The luggage compartment has a capacity of 9.5 cubic feet which expands to 31.5 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded down.

Optional equipment available on the Deluxe model includes air conditioning, automatic transmission, cruise control, five-speed manual overdrive transmission, aluminum wheels, tinted windows, remote control mirrors, power front windows, power door locks, power steering, AM/FM stereo or AM/FM stereo with cassette and 175/70SR13 steel belted radial tires.


The 1981 model lineup of the Swedish-made Saab cars will feature a brand new version of the Saab 900 series, a four-door sedan. The new Saabs are expected to be available through the company's 315 dealers early this month.

The Saab 900 sedan, originally previewed at the International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland earlier this year, will be available both in the normally aspirated version and with the Saab Turbo engine. The four-door sedan will take the place of the current Saab 900 five-door hatchback model so that the 1981 lineup will include three-door hatchbacks and four-door sedans only. All models are offered with a choice of the turbo four-cylinder, 110 horsepower power plant.

The new Saab 900 sedan has the same exterior dimensions as the current Saab 900 five-door model if replaces and provides almost the same luggage compartment space. The sedan is also equipped with fold-down rear seats for even greater load capacity.

The Saab 900 sedan stands on a 99.4-inch wheelbase and has an overall length of 187.6 inches. Turbo versions are equipped with full instrumentation including tachometer, Turbo boost gauge, coolant temperature gauge, fuel gauge, clock, odometer, trip meter and warning lights. All Saabs are equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and front-wheel drive. A heated driver's seat, introduced on some Saab models last year, will return. When the seat temperature is below 57 degrees F and the ignition is turned on, the seat's heating elements begin warming up. Once the seat temperature has reached 82 degrees F, a thermostat will switch off the power.


Two new models, one at the top-of-the-line and the other at the low end, are featured in Toyota's 1981 model lineup. Representing the economy end of the scale is the all new Starlet, while the luxury sedan in Toyota's line, the Cressida, has been completely redesigned.

The Starlet is being offered as a four-passenger, three-door lift-back. Powered by a 1.3 liter four-cylinder engine, the new model has a front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. The Starlet is equipped with rack-and-pinion steering, 13-inch steel-belted radial tires and a five-speed manual transmission with fifth gear overdrive.

The interior is equipped with high-back reclining bucket seats, cut-pile carpeting and full-instrumentation including tachometer. The 1.3 liter engine coupled to the five-speed overdrive manual transmission makes the Starlet Toyota's fuel economy leader.

At the top of the line, the Cressida sports European styling and is available in a four-door sedan and four-door station wagon. Powered by a fuel-injected six cylinder engine coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission, Cressida is also equipped with Toyota's first production model passive restraint system. While the lap belts are manually secured, the shoulder belt automatically moves into place when the front door is closed.

Several new options have been added for 1981 including an electric sliding sunroof on the sedan and a cassette/amplifier/graphic equalizer package for the stereo on both models. Alloy wheels and black sidewall radial tires are another new Cressida option.

Cressida standard equipment includes cruise control, power antenna, automatic air conditioner, fore/aft adjustable headrests, power windows, power door locks and quartz digital clock. The fully-reclining front bucket seats on the sedan are complimented by rear seats that recline several inches for additional comfort.

Subtle styling refinements and several engineering improvements are features on the rest of the Toyota line, from the front-drive Tercel up through the sporty and luxurious Celica Supra models.

Tercel, Toyota's first front-drive effort in the U.S. returns with the addition of a four-door sedan that joins the two-door sedan and lift-back models. All models have new front and rear styling that gives the series a lower, wider appearance. A split folding rear seat is a standard on the new four-door sedan to allow longer objects to be carried in the trunk and rear passenger compartment areas. A sun/moon roof option has been added to the series and features two panels, one glass and one metal.

Corolla, which was totally restyled last year, returns with only minor changes and refinements. Sedan and wagon models join the rest of the Corolla line with single rectangular headlamps in 1981 replacing last year's round ones. All Corollas feature steel belted radial tires and a rear sway bar has been added to the SR5 Sport Coupe suspension for improved ride and handling. The power plant remains the same with a 1.8 liter four cylinder engine as standard equipment.

The Celica line of sport coupes and liftbacks returns with a new engine, a new transmission with integral option as well as several other new sport and luxury options.

The new power plant is a 2.4 liter four cylinder engine and can be coupled to a new, optional four-speed automatic transmission with integral overdrive.

Other luxury options available for the first time in the 1981 GT Celicas include cruise control, a high performance stereo with electronic tuner, cassette tape deck and a two-tone paint package that includes raised white letter tires and alloy wheels.

Toyota's sport/luxury model, the Celica Supra, offers some new options in 1981. One of the new packages is the Supra Performance option that includes a stiffer suspension, front and rear spoilers, and a choice of a silver/black two-tone paint scheme or solid black metallic.

Available options on the luxury side include optional sunroof, four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, and a greater range of newly styled leather seats.

In the middle of Toyota's line is the Corona series which enters 1981 with a minor facelift. The new styling includes a new grille, headlamp bezel, fenders and hood. The five-door Luxury Edition wagon has been deleted from the line although the Luxury Edition Sedan and Liftback have been retained.


Volkswagen's 1981 lineup features two new engines, three new transmissions and the most significantly changed Rabbits since the car was introduced in 1975. Both gasoline and diesel water-cooled engines are larger and more powerful, but have sacrificed none of their fuel efficiency and, in fact, mileage is even better in 1981.

The new gas engines now displace 1.7 liters and have new internal components. Included are a new crank-shaft, new block and pistons and increased oil capacity. The engines also feature new heads, valves and exhaust valve guides as well as new camshafts and revised water pumps. The diesel engines are eight percent more powerful and now displace 1.6 liters.

The Rabbit for 1981 sports a new grille and front and rear bumpers. The taillights are wider and front turn indicators have been incorporated into single wraparound units located outboard of the headlights. Inside, the Rabbit interior has been upgraded and the instrument panel is all-new for 1981. Rabbit is available in a base model, the Rabbit L and the top line Rabbit LS. A sport version, the Rabbit S has been added for '81 and features a five-speed gearbox, front spoiler, fender flares and red accent stripes.

Also returning to the VW line for 1981 is the Jetta, Scirocco and Rabbit Convertible. The Jetta, introduced earlier this year, stands on a 94.5-inch wheelbase. The four-door notchback sedan has a trunk capacity of 13.7 cubic feet. Equipped with a fuel-injected four cylinder powerplant, the front-drive car is also outfitted with VW's passive restraint belt system as standard equipment.

Both Jetta and Rabbit Convertible have restyled interiors and the Convertible has a restyled instrument panel.

Scirocco, VW's fuel-injected 2+2 sport coupe, also returns with a more powerful engine. In addition to the larger engine, the Scirocco benefits from transmission revisions on both the five-speed manual and three-speed automatic gearboxes. Fourth and fifth gear on the manual have been numerically lowered for easier highway cruising, while the automatic has also been lowered in top gear and shift points recalibrated.

The VW pickup incorporates many of the same changes applied to the Rabbit series, while Dasher and Vanagon models return unchanged.