Would Dracula Drive It?

Cross Lander USA thinks America's SUV market is ready for something with a little Eastern European flavor. The Miami-based importer signed a contract last year with Romania's ARO SA (Auto Romania) allowing it to build U.S.-bound 4-wheel-drive SUVs, based on an aged military vehicle design, at its Campulung, Romania, plant. The plan is to sell the vehicles at a rate of up to 6,000 units annually in

Cross Lander USA thinks America's SUV market is ready for something with a little Eastern European flavor.

The Miami-based importer signed a contract last year with Romania's ARO SA (Auto Romania) allowing it to build U.S.-bound 4-wheel-drive SUVs, based on an aged military vehicle design, at its Campulung, Romania, plant. The plan is to sell the vehicles at a rate of up to 6,000 units annually in the U.S. under the “Cross Lander 244X” nametag at as many as 150 U.S. dealers.

Cross Lander isn't the first company that has tried to bring ARO's decades-old SUV to the U.S. Numerous import attempts have gone awry since the mid-1970s. This company, nevertheless, has traction, having successfully launched a Brazilian assembly operation that distributes vehicles in South and Central America.

However, the rugged go-anywhere SUV has hit a major snag in the U.S. — the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We've had some issues related to Cross Lander,” Merrylin Zaw-Mon, director-Office of Transportation and Air Quality Directors certification and compliance division, tells Ward's.

That Cross Lander has not yet submitted its emissions testing results and a 244X prototype to the nation's top environmental watchdog bodes unfavorably for the company's sales and disribution plans.

It also does little to strengthen the relationship it has struck with more than 100 potential U.S. dealers who have committed to sell Cross Lander vehicles.

Cross Lander originally promised vehicles would be available by the summer sales rush, but the company missed its April 29 appointment with the EPA, forcing dealers to push back introduction expectations.

Cross Lander General Manager William Goetze tells Ward's the company underestimated the EPA's process because the U.S.-bound vehicle's 4L V-6 and 5-speed transmissions already are in use in undisclosed products sold by a major American manufacturer.

“Inasmuch as the (powertrain) we are using is already sold in the U.S., we thought this will be a snap.” As of late May, the company was still “pre-testing” the vehicle.

“We're overly cautious at this point,” he says. “We're not going to the EPA to fail.”

A dealer says Cross Lander still is trying to iron out problems with the non-running emissions tests required by the EPA.

Reports name Ford Motor Co. as Cross Lander's engine supplier, but neither Cross Lander nor Ford confirm the partnership. Ford builds a 4L V-6 in Cologne, Germany, which powers U.S.-built Ranger pickups and Explorer SUVs. The 244X's transmission options likely are built by Eaton Corp.

Goetze says Cross Lander will build the 244X in Romania, but the North American version will be larger and more powerful.

No matter when the 244X finally shows up, initial expectations will have been dashed. Dealers have been telling interested consumers the vehicle would be available as early as last April.

Bob Luecke, general manager of American Motorcycle Trading Co. in Arlington, TX, was advertising a spring on-sale date. He remains optimistic, mostly because interest for the vehicle is strong.

“We have at least three or four inquiries per day,” he says.

Goetze says the vehicle will sticker above $20,000, even though initial price expectations were around $18,000 due to Cross Lander's original estimates.

A diesel option in the 244X, initially thought by dealers to be slated for 2005, will not be available until at least 2007.

Dealers also are promised additional models to populate the Cross Lander lineup in coming years.

Not all dealers are passing along Cross Lander's promises to potential buyers.

“We're taking a wait-and-see approach with Cross Lander,” says a spokesperson for Turn Key Trailers & Repair in Magnolia, TX, which plans to expand its business to include Cross Lander of North Houston once vehicles are available.

“In terms of delivering the product on time, no one is more anxious to deliver than we are,” Goetze says. “The onus is on us, no question about it.

“One thing we're going to be insistent on is the quality of this vehicle,” he says, pointing out that the company's Eastern Bloc heritage doesn't lend the vehicle immediate credibility with American buyers.

The Romanian plant doesn't come without its own problems. A few years ago, workers reportedly were asked to donate sperm to a local fertility clinic offering $50 for donations, and then give the money to the company to help it pay off a $20 million debt.

A Cross Lander spokesman says the sperm story precedes Cross Lander's involvement, and may not be true.

When and if the 244X reaches the U.S., Goetze says Cross Lander is expected to appeal to two different demographics: Well-to-do playboys looking for a spare vehicle and budget-minded 20-somethings looking for a high return in the distinction-per-dollar category.

Both buyers currently are starved for a vehicle such as the 244X, Goetze says. Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover and Hummer offer no-compromises off-road products, but none are as basic as the 244X, which comes with such primitive accoutrements as roll-up windows, a bare-bones interior and few measures aimed at reducing noise, vibration and harshness.

A spokesman for Land Rover says Cross Lander poses a legitimate threat to the entry-level SUV market, although it wouldn't compete with Land Rover's luxury cache and high level of technology.

“I think Jeep Wrangler proves you can establish a brand,” he says.

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