Out front in the US auto sales race it's . . . Escort

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

What's the best-selling automobile in the United States right now? You can cross off the imports, Japanese or otherwise. It's not the Chevrolet Chevette or any other car by mind-boggling General Motors. And it certainly isn't an American Motors product, nor is it a Chrysler.

Since April the largest-volume car in the US is the Ford Escort.

In an effort to hang its optimism on anything handy these days, Ford Motor Company is touting the success of the Escort, even though it is about to start paying dealers up to $600 extra per car to move some of its slow sellers off the lot.

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"It's far more fashionable today to talk about what's wrong than what's right ," sighs Louis Lataif, head of the Ford division.

Even so, Ford sold 28,400 Escorts in June, not counting the Mercury version, Lynx. Also, the figures does not include the not-long-ago-introduced two-seaters, Ford EXP and Mercury LN-7.

Chevette was the second-best-selling car, with 24,400 moved off the lot in June. The Chevrolet Citation was in third spot, with 23,400; and, in fourth spot (fourth spot!m ), the Toyota Corolla with 22,000.

Otherwise, June was one more disappointing month for the domestic auto industry as car inventories rose to uncomfortable heights. Ford, for example, had an 81-day supply of new cars on hand July 1, up from 73 1/2 June 1, according to Automotive News, the trade weekly. The days' supply of Thunderbird was 122. GM's inventory of unsold cars topped a million, or an 85-day supply. Chrysler's inventory was up to 86 days from 73; and American Motors, 75 1/2 vs. 40.

Volkswagen of America reduced its supply of cars during June from 72 days at the start of the month to 66 1/2 at the end.

To make matters worse for Detroit, the imports still took some 28 percent of all car sales during June, although they were up only slightly from a year ago. The import share of the market, in fact, remains fairly constant, despite the US- Japan pact, because of inventories of cars already in the country.

Looking ahead, however, US carmakers see the conditions almost ripe for a huge burst of demand for new cars.

"We move with the growth in the economy," Mr. Lataif says.

"If the economy slips, the auto industry moves with it," he adds. The Ford executive points to the general decline in the inflation rate and the expectation of lower interest rates in the months ahead.

"If you look at the trend line of the car business," Lataif says, "you can see that this is the third year that we've been under trend. Also, some 67 million of the 105 million cars on the road today are 1975 models or older, with an average fuel economy of 15 miles per gallon. [Average fuel economy of all 1981-model cars is 25.]

"The effect on the consumer is about $520 a year in fuel costs alone to keep those 67 million cars running.

"It just seems inevitable that there will be a real spurt in demand for new cars." Then he adds: "I with I knew which day and which week."

Indeed, with service data down at both the independent repair shops and the franchise stores, motorists are spending less money to keep their present cars on the go. Are more and more of them moving toward a decision to buy?

If they do opt to buy, however, they'll find the prices on the 1982-model cars up from the closeouts of the '81s. Asked if the market will allow for an increase in the price of the '82 cars, Lataif replies: "I believe so," adding:

"No matter how you cut the numbers -- whether you compare the cost of a car with the consumer price index over the last four or five years, the price of bread, airline fares, or anything else, car prices are up less. But the price of a new car is so visible and shocking when you go in to buy one. You buy bread every week, not every four or five years."

"People will just have to come to grips with the price," Lataif asserts.

To adjust to the jolt, most people seem to look not so much at the price as to the size of the monthly check that has to be written to pay for the car. The figures in the decision to buy or not to buy.

"The average age of a new-car contract now is about 46 months," Lataif says.

Another factor is the increased value of used cars; thus, the new-car buyer gets a higher turn-in price for his old car.

While Ford will have no all-new car lines for 1982, unlike GM, which will put an all-new, front-wheel-drive midsize lineup on the road in late fall, Ford nonetheless has a few bright ideas up its corporate pipeline for the '82-model year.

Expected to make the Escort an even bigger force in the marketplace is a new 4-door model due to bow around Oct. 1, plus a station wagon for the Granada, a new V-6 engine; a 5- liter, 4-speed Mustang which Lataif defnes as a "real headsnapper," and closer-ratio transmissions and higher-output engines on the Escort and EXP. Too, all Fairmonts will be sold as Futuras, with the Futura front end and body styles.

Around the first of the year Ford will introduce its own minitruck.

"By 1983 and beyond, and maybe a bit before that," Lataif declares, "we'll have some interesting new roof treatments that should appeal to the convertible buyer." However, Ford has not yet decided on whether or not to build a true ragtop.

As for its truck line, Ford is more than 15,000 units ahead of its perennial rival, Chevrolet. Yet, Lataif, concedes: "While the truck business is very strong for us, the absolute demand is, like cars, disappointing."

Ford has led Chevrolet in truck sales for the last six years -- and nine years out of the last 11.

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