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'Aero' look edges out boxy, look-alike cars?

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Donald F. Kopka, Ford's vice-president of design, explains the thinking at Ford: "We're developing a truly new generation of cars that break away from the slab-sided, boxy look to a more formally round shape with a low hood."

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GM, which has been building aerodynamic "idea cars" for decades, is also moving in that direction, but not with Ford's gusto. The 1981 Cadillac de Ville , for example, will feature doors wrapping over and flush with the roof. The ' 84-model Corvette, now reaching showrooms across the country, also demonstrates GM's aero direction.

But Irwin W. Rybicki, GM vice-president of design, remains cautious.

"Aero design is something you can't ignore," he says, "but it's just one element in the equation at GM. It also has to look good, and it has to meet cost and packaging goals -- and government (safety) standards."

Chrysler Corporation, which began it all with the Airflow in 1934, is moving quickly to join the aero trend as it gains in popularity.

"As an artist, I really believe in it," says Donald R. DeLaRossa, Chrysler's vice-preident of design, adding that he's approaching the change carefully, because "you can go overboard, and then the vehicle lacks personality."

Still, look for plenty of aerodynamic cues when Chrysler's new H-body luxury subcompacts arrive late next year.

The contribution of rounder shapes to the mileage equation had been almost entirely overlooked.

That contribution can be significant, especially to automakers such as General Motors and Ford, which still have sizable number of larger cars in the showroom that are figured into their overall corporative average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements set by the federal government.

The government began mandating such mileage standards in 1975, starting at 18 miles per gallon, lumping together all cars sold by a carmaker on a sales-weighted basis.

This year each automaker must achieve 26 miles per gallon, next year 27, and 27 1/2 m.p.g. in 1985.Neither Ford nor GM currently meets the 26 m.p.g. target for 1983.

Engineers measure wind resistance by using a term called drag coefficient, or Cd. The lower a car's Cd, the better it slips through the wind. As a result, its engine doesn't have to work quite so hard and fuel is thus saved.

Few automakers measured Cd until recently in any meaningful way, because it simply wasn't considered a major factor. Cars tested in wind tunnels at any Cd under 0.40 these days are considered to be relatively aerodynamically efficient.

A recently developed Ford concept car, the Probe IV, has an amazingly low 0. 15 Cd. Not to be outdone, GM recently built up a fiberglass mock-up called the Aero 2002 that has an astounding 0.14 Cd. Ford's Probe IV, however, is a full car that can be driven; GM's is strictly a show model.

There are numerous advantages to developing aero cars, not the least of which is cost savings.

Experts calculate that auto manufacturers must spend at least $100 million to get one-tenth of a mile per gallon improvement in fuel economy by mechanical means, such as more efficient engines and transmissions or by weight reduction.