European vehicle makers largely have been shut out of North America's sport-utility explosion.
They are moving to fix that.
European makers see the growth of sport wagons as a chance to grab some of the sport-utility market in the United States.
Audi, for example, will likely build the 'all-road quattro' it unveiled as a concept vehicle in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The all-wheel-drive wagon features a four-wheel air suspension that automatically adjusts ground clearance according to the vehicle's speed.
'The reaction of the market (in Detroit) was very positive,' said Audi spokesman Joachim Cordshagen. 'We will surely build it. It fills a niche, and niches are currently the most important areas for manufacturers.
'The (sport wagon) segment has huge potential.'
Meanwhile, BMW AG is developing a sport wagon off the 5 series. The vehicle will be built in Greer, S.C., late in 1999.
A BMW insider said in March that pricing for the new vehicle will start at about $50,000.
BMW expects to produce about 50,000 of the vehicles a year, with most destined for the U.S. market. The vehicle is a response to the Mercedes M class, but BMW decided to create a sport wagon rather than compete head-on with Mercedes' off-roader.
The vehicle, whose chassis will be higher than that of the 5 series, 'will be the best in its class on-road, not off-road,' said a spokesman. 'The target is to invent a new niche.'
Last October, Volvo Cars of North America Inc. started selling the all-wheel-drive V70 XC (for 'cross country'). Volvo expects to sell 15,000 XCs and 5,000 awd V70s in 1998.
Sources in Europe said Volvo plans another sport wagon in about two years.
'European manufacturers want to be part of the light-truck boom in North America. They see it as a chance for high profits,' said Peter Schmidt, director of London-based Automotive Industry Data.
However, he sees sport wagons as a 'fashion thing created by marketing departments' and believes they have limited potential in Europe.
Dick Donnelly, president of GM Europe, said, 'The segment has not exploded in Europe the way it has in North America. But if it develops in Europe, we will be there.
'For there to be strong growth (in Europe), these vehicles need to be more carlike in their features and comfort but still capable of going off-road. The operating costs also need to come right down.'
Olive Keogh of Automotive News Europe contributed to this report.