While Automobile Magazine focused only on domestic makes for their 1997 new car issue, Car and Driver made sure to cover the imports as well. The November 1986 C&D covered all imports, from Korea, Japan and Europe, with their tried and true “Charting The Changes” and “Technical Highlights.” Unlike 1987, when the focus was just on the Japanese, for 1997 the Europeans served up an array of interesting cars, at least at the high-end of the market, with the Koreans back in the game as well.
Unfortunately, Car and Driver’s headlines about coupes/sport cars was a stretch. The Acura CL was anything but sporty, the Honda Prelude played to a dramatically shrinking market, the Hyundai Tiburon was a disposable cheap coupe. Even at Jaguar, the XK8 sold far better as a convertible than a coupe, and it was a grand tourer and not a sports car.
By 1997, it was clear that Acura had lost the plot, and its sales mojo. Only the Integra name remained from the brand’s more exciting past, and sales for that aging model in a shrinking segment dropped 18%. The blandtastic “L” models (CL, TL, RL and Isuzu Trooper-based SLX) didn’t bridge the gap, and total Acura sales dipped 1%.
However, BMW hit the bullseye at the core of the booming premium European sports sedan market with the new 5 Series (total BMW sales rose 11%). Audi was also clawing its way back from obscurity with some very interesting products, including the all-aluminum A8 (Audi’s 1997 sales were up 123%).
Never mind the Prelude, the real star from Honda for 1997 was the CR-V. Small sporty coupes suddenly seemed so “Eighties” as the market moved to cute-ute. Plus the CR-V was a genuine Honda product as well, unlike the rebadged Isuzu Rodeo SUV sold as the Passport. Sales numbers reflected the new reality, as the CR-V sold 66,752 units in a shortened model year, while the all-new Prelude only garnered 16,678 sales, up 38% from 1996 but still behind the fake-Honda Passport (22,622 sold). Total Honda sales rose 15% for the year.
Though still selling at a fraction of its late-1980s volume, Hyundai was gradually climbing back up the sales charts with an increase of 8% for the year. Fellow Korean brand Kia, grew 35% as more dealers were added and buyers caught on to the ultra-cheap products.
The premium Japanese brands were suffering from some pretty significant malaise by 1997, and Infiniti’s line-up certainly exemplified the problems. While Infiniti total sales did grow 21%, that was mainly due to thinly disguised Nissan products–the Maxima-based I30 and the Pathfinder-based QX4. The all-new Q45 saw sales increase 77%, but only to 10,443 cars.
Jaguar was finally becoming a bit of a luxury bright spot for Ford Motor Company, as the new XK8 was well received (6,846 sold). Total Jaguar sales rose 9% for the year as a result.
Lexus had a very quiet year for 1997. The ES was all-new, but it didn’t look it. Rarely has a thoroughly revamped car looked so much like its predecessor that it was hard to tell apart. Still, the sleepy new ES saw a sales increase of 31% to 58,430 cars, making it the most popular Lexus.
Likewise, Mazda was in a pretty boring mode as well. Buyers yawned at the minimal changes, and sales dropped 7%. Mitsubishi served up an array of reworked or all-new products, including the Mirage and Diamante near-luxury sedan, but nothing really sparked dramatically with buyers, and sales only rose 2%.
In contrast, the Germans were coming on strong. Mercedes introduced the new SLK Roadster, which generated a lot of buzz, while the rest of the now “value-engineered” Benz models continued to see favor with buyers, and brand sales rose 11%.
Japanese juggernaut Toyota served up a new Camry, while rival Nissan had a relatively quiet year from a new product standpoint. Nissan’s sales dropped 4%, while Toyota’s rose 5%. Over at Subaru, the popularity of the Outback boosted overall sales 11%. By this point, however, Suzuki was just a sad footnote on the market, with sales dropping 20% to just 8,350 units.
Porsche had a great 1997 thanks to the new Boxster, and brand sales rose 80%. Saab and Volvo, by contrast, had little news and flat year-over-year sales. The revamped Passat, a late arrival, would help Volkswagen a bit, as sales climbed 2% for 1997.
Honda was still introducing very sweet and sophisticated engines for 1997, it was just a shame that they were packaged in such boring products.
Multi-valve cylinder heads, turbos, increased use of aluminum components, advanced safety systems like driver and front-passenger side head airbags, active head restraints–there was a lot of interesting technology coming from the imported brands. From the Americans? Well, who needs tech? How about a truck?
A couple of key new technologies were the focus for 1997: electric cars and in-car navigation systems. While electrics grew in fits and starts, they are now gaining a bit of market traction 20 years later. Built-in navigation systems, by contrast, have gone from being newfangled technology, to relatively prevalent, to almost obsolete, as they are now being supplanted by mobile-device-based mapping services.
When the dust settled for 1997, the imported brands sold over 4 million units in the U.S. market, and coming within 300,000 units of General Motors. As for market share, including trucks, GM had 31%, imports accounted for 28%, Ford achieved 25% and Chrysler held 16% (without trucks, the market share for the U.S. brands would have been much worse compared to the car-centric imported brands). Here are the sales totals, by brand, for the imports:
Clearly, the imports were getting more and more entrenched in the U.S. market, especially for family sedans and luxury cars, and trend that would accelerate even more after the start of the 21st Century.