Italy conjures up many visions: a villa on the Mediterranean, Sophia Loren, Ferraris, and the world's best Parmesan cheese. But SUVs? Not usually. Well, there is a luxury sport/utility built in Italy, and it's available here. Again.

Again? Yes. What we call the LaForza-Italian for "the force"-was originally designed by Tom Tjaarda (DeTomaso Pantera, Ferrari 365 California) in the mid-'80s. But it was too much (or too little) too soon; the luxo-SUV market had yet to really blossom, plus there were quality and money problems. Exit the first LaForza.

And enter Dave Hops, who was installing Ford powertrains into Mazda Miatas when a friend called him about buying up a few of the last LaForzas. After contacting the previous importer's receiver, he made a deal for 50 unfinished vehicles. He later bought the whole lot and, presto, found himself in the business. LaForza Automobiles now imports new vehicles to the U.S., sans drivetrains and front fascias, and finishes them in its San Diego area facility. According to Hops, they're saleable and legal in all states.

The LaForza relies on a Ford 5.0-liter V-8 rated at 225 horsepower, and an optional dealer-installed supercharger system cranks that up to about 300. The balance of the drivetrain is composed of Ford's four-speed automatic overdrive trans and full time all-wheel-drive system (minus transfer case or low range).

Upon entering a LaForza, you notice several things. First of all, it's wide and exceptionally comfortable, especially for rear-seat passengers. Second, nearly everything you can see and touch is covered in either handstitched Italian leather or a soft, suedelike material-although don't expect BMW-like fit and finish. The platform is also showing its age a bit; there are no airbags, traction control, or ABS as we've all come to expect these days .

Though the performance numbers shown here were generated using a blower-equipped LaForza, it must be said we experienced mechanical difficulties with two different supercharged examples. Senior Road Test Editor DeMere noted considerable pinging at full throttle just below redline.

Should you not wish to spend the $59,000 or more it takes to acquire a new LaForza, you can buy a new 10-year-old one. Remember the warehouses full of '89-'90 LaForzas Hops acquired? He still has a few left-brand new and never titled-equipped with an earlier-generation 185-horse Ford V-8. An absolute bargain, starting at just $34,500.


'89-'90 LaForzas
Vehicle config. Front engine, AWD, 5-door, 5-pass.
Engine type 90 V-8, OHV, 2 valves/cyl.
Displacement ci/cc 301.6/4942
Horsepower, SAE net 225 base, 300 supercharged
Wheelbase, in/mm 106.2/2697
Base curb weight, lb 4900
Acceleration, 0-60 mph, sec 8.1
Standing quarter mile, mph/sec 16.2/82.4
Braking 60-0 mph, ft 130
Lateral acceleration, g 0.69
Speed through 600-ft slalom, mph 56.0
Base price $34,500