Detroit puts 'world cars' on road to balk imports

If talk alone could do the job, the domestic carmakers should already have pushed the imports back "to the beach," an overstated phrase used by ex-chairman Henry Ford II a few years back.

Despite the boast, the imports are still pumping cars into the US in volume and show no indication of pulling back to the suburbs, let alone the beach.

Nonetheless, the new crop of domestic automobiles -- small, innovative, high- mileage vehicles, at competitive prices -- should stand a good chance of making significant inroads into the ranks of the imports.

The new Ford Escort/Mercury Lynx, for example, has captured the "feel" of the imports as well as the handling.

Ford Motor Company has been making a lot of noise for many months about its designated "world cars," designed and executed by top-flight input from Ford workers around the world.

Indeed, the new front-drive cars rallym are centuries ahead of the ill-fated Pinto/Bobcat which they replace.

Five years and $3 billion in the making, Ford now has come up against the imports with force. The 4-cylinder, overhead-cam, compound valve hemispherical (CVH) Escort engine alone cost some $1 billion to design and perfect, reports Ford. While work on the engine began in the US, subsequent development moved to Ford of Europe. Ford of Germany, for example, worked on refinements to the basic engine design while Ford of Britain handled performance development.

The result is a high-mileage, easy-starting, smooth-running power plant which indeed can get out of its own way at a traffic light even if it's not a tire burner.

In size, the new engine, at 1.6 liters, is rated at 69 horsepower at 5,000 rpm.

The front-drive manual transaxle is built by Ford's Japanese affiliate, Toyo Kogyo, builder of the Mazda automobile. It uses computer-selected gears for low noise and high wear.

Escort wheelbase is 94.2 inches and the car weighs in at about a ton.

A sporty version of the car, the Escort EXP, will debut next spring while a fourdoor Escort is due out next fall.

The new Escort, with independent four- wheel suspension, sticks to the blacktop and moves over the road like a winner. Barring any unseen potholes ahead, the Escort/Lynx are on their way.

In price, they start at under $5,500 although the car I've been driving, a three- door hatchback, is priced around $8,000. The options list is long and expensive.

A little more front-seat travel might help for the long-legged drivers who take to the wheel, but then that would cramp the leg room behind. In interior space, the new Ford cars are just about the size of a compact although the outside dimensions are the next step down, a subcompact.

A useful dashtop shelf is a welcome addition to the environment of any car as are all the practical little spaces which the imports provide to the motorist. The US industry is learning to make more out of less.

The Escort/Lynx is Ford Motor Company's immediate response to the import phalanx although they'll be followed by its own phalanx of technologically up-to-date automobiles which will move into the showroom over the next several years.

Chrysler Corporation also debuted its K-car this fall -- the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant -- the first of its own "import fighters" to join the fray between now and the mid-1980s. Then there is American Motors with its French ally, Regie Renault, at its side. More and more front-wheel-drive, high-mileage cars will move into AMC-Renault dealerships over the years to come. A jointly developed high-mileage car will be built in the US in less than two years.

Mighty General Motors, embarked on a $40 billion spending splurge by the end of 1984, will unveil its J-car in the spring, a fwd replacement for the aging Chevrolet Monza and Pontiac Sunbird. And being GM, the huge vehiclemaker won't let any grass grow on its test track, either in Milford, Mich., or in its dealerships.

By 1985, the domestic cars should be fully competitive with the best that the importers can offer.

The GM X-cars -- Chevrolet Citation, Buick Sklark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix -- on the road since April, 1979, plus the Ford Escort/Lynx and the Chrysler K-cars, are only a prelude of what's down the road.

What it means is that the fight should be fair -- the domestic should be head to the head with the imports -- and only the best cars will win.

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