"It's a Qvale." "A What?"

A snazzy Italian-made coupe enters the U.S. race

Let's face it. Bragging rights are a big motivator for buying an expensive sports car. Be it a brand-new Porsche Boxster or a vintage Austin-Healey, those with the yen to impress want to set themselves apart with the coolest roadster they can find. American-owned Qvale (pronounced kuh-vah-lee) Automotive Group thinks its Mangusta convertible is a fresh alternative for car buffs who want individuality.

Indeed, during a test drive of the Italian-designed Mangusta, I stopped at a grocery store in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, where the main drag is lined with European car dealerships. A woman in an Audi asked a question I would hear several times during my four-day trial run: "What's that?" When I told her it was a Qvale, she replied: "A what?"

Exactly. This sharply styled, $69,500 sports car has been on sale for more than a year, and only about 50 have been sold in the U.S. so far. The Mangusta is manufactured in Modena, the capital of Italian motoring. Qvale President Bruce Qvale, longtime distributor of expensive European cars, and a few other family members took over the project from carmaker De Tomaso--whose principal, Alejandro De Tomaso, once owned Maserati--when it ran short of cash. By purchasing engines from Ford Motor (F ) and getting Ford's former parts unit, Visteon, to provide electronics and interior parts, Qvale got the Mangusta to the assembly line.

Winning recognition hasn't been easy. At first, Qvale was selling the car for $84,000--$7,000 more than a comparably equipped Porsche 911. But as the euro weakened, Qvale reckoned he could export the cars to the U.S. and sell them more cheaply. His goal is to build his network of 15 dealers in major metro markets to 20 or more and sell 500 cars a year--two-thirds in the U.S.

If Qvale can get its name out, that should be a cinch. There's really nothing like this car on the road. The Mangusta takes off with a hopped-up, 320-horsepower Ford Mustang V-8, going from zero to 60 miles per hour in a jolting five seconds. While the Porsche 911's six-cylinder, 300-horsepower engine is more sophisticated, the Qvale has the kind of raw American power that has been pretty much AWOL since fuel-economy regulation axed the muscle cars of the 1970s. Combine that with tight handling and precise steering, and the car is tons of fun on tight turns or at high speeds. Another perk: The big motor makes a tough, throaty sound when you lay on the accelerator.

The car is a bit raw in other places. Road and wind noise pervade the cockpit. And for a new car, this one had plenty of squeaks and rattles.

For all the advantages Qvale gets by using the Mustang engine, a few items are built Ford cheap. The instrument gauges resemble those on the new Explorer, giving them a mundane look not befitting a $70,000 car. But except for the dashboard, which Qvale says will improve in 2002 models, the interior is beautiful. The cabin of my test car was wrapped in reddish-brown leather. Its seats are firm in the European tradition, but are still comfortable. The center console is brushed chrome. And the tiny rear seats offer a convenient storage area that most two-seat sports cars lack.

WINNING SMILE. The exterior is also attractive. The Mangusta's profile is sporty, yet understated and tasteful. The car's front seems to smile, but not with the silly grin of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The Qvale is far from perfect. But its combination of raw Americana and European styling might be just what sports car enthusiasts want. If so, the Mangusta should speed its way out of obscurity.

By David Welch

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