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By DAVE GUILFORD | Automotive News

DETROIT - General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz wants to transport Americans to Europe when they drive a GM car. The question: Do GM customers want to make the trip?

The Euro influence will be apparent in the driving dynamics and interior appointments of GM's new mid-sized cars on the Epsilon architecture, GM executives say.

Epsilon made its debut in Europe earlier this year with the Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3. GM is preparing the first North American Epsilon vehicle, the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu, due in the fourth quarter of 2003. It will be followed by the 2005 Pontiac Grand Am, a Saturn sedan and a possible Buick.

Lutz says one of his key concerns has been making sure that nothing got lost in the translation from the Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3.

Epsilon Vehicle Line Executive Gene Stefanyshyn says Lutz lobbied to preserve the stiffer suspension and tighter handling characteristic of European vehicles.

"Bob wanted to make sure that we didn't soften up the ride or dumb it down," Stefanyshyn said. "It won't be quite as tight as a Saab or an Audi, but it will be tighter than we have been."

Two reasons explain why GM won't produce cars that handle exactly like their European counterparts. Some U.S. customers object to tight handling - in fact, GM product planners talk ruefully of customer anger when they stiffened the ride of some sporty models in years past.

The other obstacle? The great American pothole.

It is a truism among product planners that U.S. roads are noticeably rougher than European roads. Lutz says even European automakers compromise their U.S. vehicles: "A lot of the Europeans will soften their cars for the U.S. They fail the pothole test."

But Lutz insists that U.S. tastes are moving away from the soft, cushy ride traditionally associated with American cars - and that GM will benefit by offering sporty handling.

"The current generation of American buyer really likes a very firm, predictable road feel," Lutz said. "GM has tended to underestimate how far the American center has moved toward a European feel."

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