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Entrepreneur plans U.S. comeback for the Yugo

DETROIT There are those who think the notion of bringing Yugo cars back to the USA is folly. Then there are those committed few who think it's about time for Serbia to get back in the U.S. car business.

Yugos were sold in the USA from 1986 to 1992 for prices starting at $3,995. The cars became the target of jokes when owners found it difficult to get them repaired after the company pulled out of the U.S. market in 1992 and the factory in the former Yugoslavia stopped production when civil war broke out.

But entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, who introduced the car to the USA, plans to bring a retooled line of Yugos back here by late next year. In contrast to the lone hatchback available the first time around, Bricklin now plans to offer three cars and a pickup, priced no higher than $10,000.

That suits Ralph Isenberg just fine. The Greensboro, N.C., resident is a proud owner of a Yugo, his sixth, and he thinks the car has gotten a bad rap.

Isenberg, who runs an Internet message board on Yahoo where Yugo enthusiasts swap stories and advice on getting parts and repairs, jokes that he likes to back losers. "I've owned Yugos, Chevy Vegas, Corvairs, Edsels and an AMC Pacer."

But he says Yugos have been unfairly maligned. "Treat them right, and they'll work for you," he says.

Two years ago, Brandon Simonson, 17, of Red Wing, Minn., began looking for his first car, and two months ago bought a 1991 Yugo with 64,000 miles. Simonson, who runs yugoworld.tripod.com, says, "Not many people can say they have fulfilled their life dream by 18, but I can. I own a Yugo."

Tony Underwood of Roanoke, Va., owns a 1988 Yugo, and his brother owns a 1986 model. Both cars have more than 100,000 miles and "are going strong," says Underwood, quickly adding that "neither is for sale."

Underwood, who restores vintage cars, says he loves proving Yugo bashers wrong. "Each time I drive that Yugo down Main Street ... it proves to the more caustically inclined loudmouths that they were wrong."

Bricklin has struck an agreement with the Serbian government to reintroduce Yugos next year as "ZMW," for Zastava Motor Works. Bricklin says he knows that will tug on the beard of Germany's BMW.

With the Yugo jokes still around (Why is a Yugo's rear window heated? To keep your hands warm while you're pushing.), Bricklin nonetheless sees a demand.

"The average-price car today is over $20,000, and the lowest-price Kia is almost $10,000," he says.v Still, he says, "I asked myself a hundred times if this was worth doing."

He acknowledges the factory needs export sales to make up for lack of demand at home.

Bricklin sold his interest in Yugo after his U.S. import company went bankrupt.

His new agreement with the Serbian state gives him the exclusive right to take another shot at it.

Quality, Bricklin says, has been improved at the rebuilt factory, and the engines will be supplied by French carmaker Peugeot.

The original Yugos had Fiat engines, which some steadfast owners say has been the key to keeping Yugos maintained.

"I can use Fiat and even Ferrari parts in my Yugos," says Konstantin Selakovic of New Orleans, who has five Yugos, including a Yugo limousine and a race car.

Radoje Spasojevic lives north of Seattle and commutes 20 miles to work every morning in one of his Yugos. He has another for parts. He's turning a third into a hot rod. His father brings him parts in a suitcase when he visits the USA from Serbia.

"I think it's great Yugo is coming back," Spasojevic says. "I think there is a market for a no-frills car that would be the only one on the block."

Bricklin hopes to sign up 12 distributors by next year. He's eyeing a debut at either the Detroit auto show in January or the Chicago Auto Show in March.

But there are hurdles, including getting the vehicles certified for U.S. safety standards, securing enough engines from Peugeot and redesigning interiors for U.S. tastes.

Jokes aside, maybe credibility won't be among Bricklin's chores after all.

On Web site Epinions.com, 83% of Yugo owners recommend the car to others.


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