The fight for leadership of the Brazilian car market between Fiat, Volkswagen and General Motors has taken an unusual turn with the German firm running a promotion offering a $US98,000 sub-orbital spaceflight and 11 zero-gravity flights as prizes, writes Rogério Louro.

Volkswagen do Brasil is using the promotion to increase the number of customers visiting its dealers and consequently boost sales.

Anyone who buys a VW vehicle or has a car serviced at a VW dealer will receive coupons for entry into a sweepstake.

The top prize flight will be provided by American company Space Adventures whose sub-orbital space flights reach an altitude of at least 62 miles (100 kilometres), which is defined by the international community as the beginning of space. Passenger flights are expected to begin in 2005 in a new type of reusable vehicle.

Tests have already begun in a programme expected to run until the beginning of 2005. The price per person for a sub-orbital flight (including the four-day training programme) is $US98,000.

The 11 VW customers who win a zero-gravity flight will be in the customised Ilyushin-76 MDK aircraft used by Russian cosmonauts. Space Adventures operates their zero-gravity flights from the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

The flights are the only way to experience weightlessness without actually being in space.

Volkswagen was Brazilian vehicle sales leader for 40 years until it lost its crown to Fiat in 2001. For the first quarter of 2004, VW was second with 76,277 units sold behind GM (83,321) and Fiat (73,891).