JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - The Aro sport-utility has proven once again that it has more lives than a cat. At the long-overdue U.S. dealer introduction here last week, officials disclosed that the factory in Romania has revitalized the project and has taken a direct role in getting the vehicle introduced in America.
'This business was really born again five months ago,' said John Perez, chairman of East European Imports Inc., the Miami-based independent distributor that is now two years overdue in introducing the Aro.
The factory formed a new subsidiary, Aro of America Inc., to bring the Aro into compliance with U.S. regulations and to supervise the installation of engines and powertrains by International Auto Processing Inc. in Brunswick, Ga. Those functions previously belonged to East European Imports.
About 140 would-be Aro dealers, who have each put down a $30,000 deposit, have been waiting with growing impatience to see the finished product. Most of them seemed to be here last week.
Perez said the company has also refunded about $3 million worth of dealer deposits, which would represent another 100 dealers or so who decided not to wait.
'BUILT LIKE A TANK'
'Built like a tank. Looks like it could take a mortar round, but the inside needs to be more Americanized,' was one dealer's verdict. Fit and finish were much better than earlier prototypes, another dealer said. 'I'm impressed,' he said, even though the welds between pieces are prominent, and the bolted-on parts are, well, bolted on.
Dealers zeroed in on the sticker price: $12,997 suggested retail, plus $495 for metallic paint, a $500 destination charge, and 'TBA' for a 'sport package' of options.
'At that price, I don't think you can go wrong,' said Elton Wetteland, president and general manager of Capital Motor Co. (Lincoln-Mercury-Jeep-Eagle-Hyundai) in Tallahassee, Fla. 'There's a big upside, with a real minor downside.'
However, several dealers were fuzzy about important facts, such as sourcing of the engine, and whether all federal regulations have been satisfied.
U.S. sales are supposed to begin as early as August. Perez said last week the first shipment of about 100 units, less engines and drivetrains, is due at the port in Brunswick, Ga., on July 9. Sales should begin about two weeks later, he said.
But last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it does not have the documents it needs to show the Aro meets federal safety rules. Proof is required before U.S. sales can begin. And the Aro has no airbags, which will be required for both front passengers as of Sept. 1, 1998.
As to the engine, dealers at the introduction insisted the 3.0-liter, V-6 engine comes from Ford Motor Co. In its printed material, East European officially identifies the engine only as a 'U.S.-built engine.' Unofficially, the company does not do much to discourage the impression that it comes from Ford.
In reality, the engine is a copy of a Ford/Cosworth V-6 cobbled together by independent manufacturers from off-the-shelf parts. The suppliers were assembled by Sykes Marketing, a brokerage firm in Jonesboro, Ark. 'Ford does not have a role,' said Michael Sykes, the general manager.
The story of the engine is a good illustration of how hard it is to launch a new product in general, and of Aro's problems in particular. A related issue is the fact that Jack Trotman, co-founder and former president of East European, was conspicuously absent last week from the dealer launch that would have culminated a total of about 10 years of work, at two different companies.
Perez earlier glossed over Trotman's leaving the company in early 1997. But last week, he said he asked Trotman to resign in January because Trotman was 'at war' with Aro factory officials in Romania. He said Trotman accepted a buyout.
Trotman, who could not be reached for comment, was planning to import engines from Cosworth in Britain and install them at the factory in Romania. Perez now says the factory wanted to install engines in the United States. Under Trotman, East European had also taken over responsibility for homologating the Aro - that is, getting it to comply with U.S. regulations.
'We know how to distribute, and to sell,' Perez said. 'Here's what the Romanians saw: Here are a bunch of guys who all of a sudden are becoming the experts on homologation, the experts on certification, and they don't know what they're doing.'
Perez said the factory had so little faith in East European that Aro secretly began developing the Ford/Cosworth knock-off, without informing the would-be U.S. distributor.
Because Aro did its own work on homologation, East European's efforts on the Cosworth V-6 were wasted. 'I have a car sitting around that's probably got $2 million sunk into it, with a Cosworth engine in it,' Perez said.
And the new engine isn't certified for U.S. sale by the EPA yet. It should pass, according to Romanian engineer Catalin Tutunaru, because the specifications are the same as the Cosworth engine.
Despite the potential problems, many dealers were willing to wait and see.
'I just came here to see, and give it a look,' said Mike Cummings, general manager of Russ Dean Ford, who came all the way from Pasco, Wash. 'That's what a lot of guys in black (Aro-logo) shirts are here for.'