Sight unseen, no matter where it comes from or who builds it, the concept of a cheap sport-utility seems impossible for many dealers to resist.
Otherwise, who can explain the lure of shoestring, import promoters like Miami-based East European Imports and a new rival founded this year, Eurasia Motor Corp.?
Both are wooing dealers across the country with pitches about sturdy, no-frills sport-utilities to be priced under $15,000.
Eurasia, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., started signing up dealers early this year with the claim that it will import sport-utilities under the Gazelle brand name, starting with an open-top model called the Rage. Sales are supposed to start in December.
To date, Eurasia has signed 'about 10 dealers' at $30,000 apiece, a company principal said.
Since 1994, East European has signed about 147 dealers - also at $30,000 apiece - to sell a Romanian sport-utility, the Aro.
Imports of that vehicle have not begun, and its federal status is unclear.
Brad Majercin, general manager of Childress Buick-Geo in Phoenix, said last week that his dealership put down a $30,000 deposit in May for the Gazelle franchise for Arizona.
He said Eurasia gave him the names of two other dealers as references, but he complained that facts on the company are hard to come by.
'I'm trying to do some due diligence, but the more you look, the less there is,' Majercin said.
A Dun & Bradstreet report showed next to nothing besides the names of Eurasia officers. But perhaps that is to be expected because the company is so new, he said. Florida state records show Eurasia was incorporated Feb. 19, 1997.
Majercin said he was beginning to worry about the deposit, but he said Eurasia promised a refund if a test drive scheduled for September is unsatisfactory.
Jim Marsh, a Las Vegas dealer with Jeep-Eagle, Mazda and Volvo franchises, said Eurasia approached him, but he decided to pass. 'I just don't have a comfort level with it. I can't even find out where they're going to build it,' he said.
Eurasia officials say the Rage will be assembled in Britain from off-the-shelf parts from many different sources. According to these executives, the Rage will incorporate a body shell originally designed to fit a short-wheelbase Land Rover Defender 90, and will be powered by a Cosworth engine.
Details on the project came from Mark Weiner of Fort Lauderdale, who said that his company, Performance Financial Services, came up with the Gazelle concept a few years ago.
Weiner said last week that Eurasia has a letter of intent to buy engines and powertrains from Cosworth, although a contract has not been signed.
For its part, East European promises it will begin U.S. deliveries of the Romanian-built Aro sport-utility for U.S. sales this summer. That would be about two years late, based on a timetable set early in 1995.
As recently as late 1996, East European said the Aro with U.S. specifications would be equipped with a 2.9-liter Cosworth engine, installed in Romania. Today, the company says the Aro will have a Ford Motor Co. engine, and that the engine and drivetrain will be installed in the United States.
The Ford link could not immediately be confirmed.
'It has been an uphill struggle, and we've had our ups and downs, but we're only a month away from introducing it to the dealers,' said John Perez, East European's new president and chief executive.
Meanwhile, East European disclosed that its co-founder, Jack Trotman, left the company in February.
Trotman, who had struggled for more than 10 years to import vehicles from Romania with another company, helped start East European in 1994. East European's attorney, Daniel Ponce, said Trotman left on friendly terms. Trotman could not be reached for comment.
Eurasia was founded at the time of Trotman's departure by a group of East European employees, including Trotman's son, J.T. Trotman, and Howard Patterson, the East European marketing manager, now chief executive of Eurasia.