Invading the U.S. auto market takes equal parts chutzpah and sangfroid. There are 42 brands here hawking 283 nameplates in different models and configurations. Some brands have dropped out, while competitive realities have kept other wannabes from ever making a beachhead.
The list of failed and stalled entrants here includes Italy's Fiat and Alfa Romeo -- both of which are currently attempting second assaults after retreating in 1983 and 1995, respectively. It includes Japanese carmakers Daihatsu and Isuzu, South Korea's Daewoo, and China's Chery Automobile.
And it includes Ssangyong's new parent company, Mahindra & Mahindra of India. Mahindra tried and failed to enter the United States through an independent distributor, Global Vehicles U.S.A. That effort collapsed in 2010 before delivering a single sale and is still dragging through litigation involving Mahindra and some of the 350 retailers who signed on to sell Mahindra pickups.
Many of Mahindra's would-be U.S. dealers were grandfathered in to the Indian pickup franchise after being part of an earlier plan by the same distributor to import a Romania-built SUV called the Aro. That U.S. import plan also failed.
Other tried-and-eventually-failed U.S. import entrants include Bertone, Colt, Lancia, Maybach, Opel, Renault, Saab, Sterling, Triumph, Yugo and, lest anyone forget, DeLorean.
"People around the world look at the sales volumes going on here, and they look at the fortunes being made here, and they look at what the outlook is in other parts of the world -- and they want to be here," said Charlie Hughes, owner of the brand-consulting firm Brand Rules. Hughes played a key role in introducing the British premium SUV brand Land Rover to the United States in 1987 and was CEO of Mazda North American Operations.
"But the plain truth is that unless you're coming in with something truly unique, it is just not plausible that you're going to get anywhere in this market."
Hughes points out a rare example of success at that: California's Tesla Motors. Tesla offered a product that no one else had -- an electric luxury vehicle -- and distributed it factory-direct, a method that appealed to some buyers, Hughes said.
"If all you're going to do is enter this market offering the same thing everyone else is already offering, you might as well save your money," he said. "The U.S. auto industry is a very expensive place to do business."
How expensive is it?
No. 9 brand Subaru last year spent an estimated $390 million on U.S. advertising to sell 582,675 new vehicles, according to Advertising Age. But to make that possible, Subaru's parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, has invested $1.8 billion in an Indiana auto plant.