BIGGER IS BETTER IN '88. Aerodynamic design, even more computer gadgetry mark Detroit's newest offspring

Memories of long lines at the gas pump and bare-knuckle fisticuffs between carmakers and federal government regulators are gone as the auto industry pumps more power into its 1988 cars. Distinctive designs are the rule, not the exception; safety is on a roll, and bigger is no longer bad in Detroit.

Clearly evident is the aerodynamic car, tested and popularized by Ford. The ``aero wand'' has even touched the all-new, front-drive GM-10 cars - Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the latter two not expected in the showroom till sometime next spring.

Meantime, Ford has touched up its aero design in the Tempo and Topaz to make them even more attractive to potential buyers.

More cars are getting antilock brakes, while four-wheel steering is just beginning to appear, with the Japanese once more getting the jump on Detroit.

The on-board ``computer era'' is in full swing. ``Active suspensions,'' which automatically adapt to the condition of the road surface, are on the way. More than a mysterious under-hood presence in cars, computers in the future will even help drivers keep their cars under control. They'll go well beyond the antilock brake systems of today to juggle and adjust acceleration, braking, and the traction of tires on the road to arrive at optimum safety.

Also, many cars of the 1990s will be equipped with on-board diagnostic systems similar to that being introduced on the 1988 Lincoln Continental, predicts Louis E. Lataif, head of Ford's North American automotive operations.

Among the new engines for '88 is GM's stunning Quad-4, developed by Oldsmobile as the first 16-valve power plant to be built in the United States, and a 3.8-liter V-6 from Ford.

Here's a rundown on what's new:

Ford Motor Company

Success breeds repetition at Ford. When Ford began flirting with aerodynamic styling a few years ago with its Tempo, Topaz, and T-Bird, it was risking the loss of big bucks, yet the gamble paid off far more than even the most exuberant Ford executives dared to hope.

While flailed by its detractors as the jellybean look, Ford's aero balloon took off and continues to climb, putting Ford far ahead of General Motors in the profit column, if not in total sales.

Now, for 1988 and beyond, Ford is carrying aero even further, including its all-new Continental, the first front-wheel-drive Lincoln. This car, with its breakthrough air-suspension system, antilock brakes, and new 3.8-liter V-6 engine, shows what Ford's designers and engineers can do in high-level transportation.

While the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz may not be all-new cars for '88, the four-door versions are dramatically different in appearance, especially in the rear. Ford drops the four-wheel-drive option for the Tempo, but keeps it in the Topaz.

The Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable are essentially unchanged, except for the addition of Toyota-designed motorized passive-restraint safety belts in the front. Its new 3.8-liter balance-shaft V-6 is an option on both cars. The wagons will get a remote liftgate release sometime in the new model year.

The Thunderbird Turbo Coupe remains the same, as do the Mustang, Crown Victoria, and Country Squire wagon. Escort, the world's best-selling car for five years running, is due for major changes in the spring.

``We're going to take the Escort head to head against the Japanese and focus on the fact that you get much more equipment on the Escort for several hundred dollars less cost than the competitive Japanese cars,'' says Robert Rewey, Ford division general manager.

The Mexican-built, Mazda-derived Ford Festiva is now available nationwide.

Next spring Ford will bring on the Probe, a name associated with a running series of super-low-drag research cars. The front-drive Probe was rumored to be a replacement for the Mustang. Rather, Ford spokesmen explain, the two cars will be sold side by side.

Actually, the Probe car that's coming up is derived from the Mazda 626 and will be built by Mazda in its new Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant alongside the MX-6, a new version of the 626. Ford has a 25 percent stake in Mazda.

General Motors

Unlike Rip van Winkle, this mighty and complex automotive machine hasn't been asleep for the past 20 years. But it has had more than a few catnaps.

Today, make no mistake, GM is wide awake and on the move. Not only does GM unveil the first of its GM-10 cars - a midsize coupe, sold as the Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme - but it also has three new engines: the magnificent 2.3-liter, 16-valve Quad 4; a 4.5-liter V-8; and another rendition of the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac V-6 dubbed the 3800. The latter has more torque, better gas mileage, and 10 percent faster acceleration from zero to 60 m.p.h. than the engine it replaces. The Quad 4, with double overhead camshafts, develops 150 horsepower.

Chevrolet plans to widen the model range for its Corsica and Beretta, introduced last March as '88-model cars. It will offer a Corsica wagon and four-door hatchback sedan, plus a Beretta ragtop.

The Cavalier gets a new front-end look, while the Camaro comes in two versions for '88: the IROC-Z and a Sport Coupe, both with an optional ragtop. The rear-drive Monte Carlo now comes in two versions, the LS and SS. A Eurosport VR version of the Celebrity is to be introduced as well. The '88 Chevrolet Corvette rides on 17-inch wheels in the new-model year.

About 10 percent of all new Chevrolet Novas, built by Toyota in Fremont, Calif., will get the new Quad-4 engine, with double the output of the standard Nova power plant.

The long-dormant Cadillac Eldorado not only gets the new 4.5-liter V-8, but new sculpted lines, too. That could help spring the car out of its low-sales rut. Antilock braking is available on the Seville, which also has a larger fuel tank and slightly revised front-end appearance.

The DeVille gets more standard features, including the 4.5-liter engine. The Italo-American two-seat Allante roadster, now in its second year with a price tag of more than $50,000, still has only one option, a cellular telephone. About 2,000 are now in customers' hands.

Pontiac's version of the GM-10 platform, the stunning new front-drive, super-low-drag Grand Prix, won't hit the showroom till early in the new year. GM's fast-moving car division introduces the Bonneville SSE touring sedan. Midway through the '88-model year, the front-drive 6000 STE will get an all-wheel-drive option, plus a beefier engine to handle the increased weight.

The sporty Fiero two-door coupe gets a fully independent suspension, something it has needed all along but which took a few years to arrive. The back end of the Sunbird is revamped for, among other things, easier entry into the trunk space.

Oldsmobile won't get its GM-10 car, the Cutlass Supreme coupe, till early next year. The front-drive Toronado gets a new front-end look.

Oldsmobile drops the coupe version of its high-luxury 98, and the Firenza gets a new grille.

The GM Quad-4 engine is an option on the Buick Skylark, while the Skyhawk gets a new coupe. The LeSabre has a new standard suspension which negates the need for a stiffer-handling suspension.

Chrysler Corporation

The company that almost self-destructed a few years ago has just acquired long-troubled American Motors, buying up French carmaker Renault's 46 percent share in the process.

Larger for 1988, Chrysler unveils the new full-size, front-drive Chrysler New Yorker and its Dodge version, the Dynasty.

Chrysler is chasing GM's Pontiac and Oldsmobile divisions, especially the Bonneville and Delta 88. The standard engine in the New Yorker is the Mitsubishi three-liter V-6, which is also an option for the standard 2.5-liter, four-cylinder in the Dynasty.

Longer versions of the popular minivans, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, should provide even more versatility and choice to buyers. The ``stretch'' is 14.6 inches, but the added gain in space inside is notable. The Mitsubishi V-6 is an option in all the vans.

Shadow and Sundance, introduced a year ago, are new in detail only, and so are the Omni and Horizon, now to be built in the former American Motors plant in Kenosha, Wis.

Significant work has been done on the Mitsubishi Colt lineup, including an all-new Colt DL wagon.

Eagle Jeep

Now part of the Chrysler Corporation, what has long been American Motors Corporation can be reasonably sure of its long-term viability in the marketplace.

The four-wheel-drive Eagle survives as a wagon. It will have much more standard equipment, including air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, and an AM/FM stereo sound system.

The new front-drive Premier, built in an all-new assembly plant in Bramelea, Ontario, will be sold under the Eagle nameplate, but without a base-level, zero-options version.

The midsize Premier, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, is perhaps the best new car introduced by the former AMC in many a year.

It has an extremely low coefficient of drag and a choice of two engines, including a 150-hp. V-6 jointly developed by Renault, Volvo, and Peugeot. The standard engine is a 2.5-liter, 111-hp. ``4.'' Antilock braking is expected sometime after the first of the year.

While the low-selling Alliance is dropped, the Renault-built Medallion will be reintroduced next spring as an '89 model, tagged Medallion - Imported for Eagle. The Medallion has already won high marks.

The Jeep lineup, a key reason for Chrysler's purchase of AMC, remains substantially unchanged for the new-model year, except for a two-door model in the Cherokee Limited lineup.

A new full-time, four-wheel-drive system will be available as an option on the standard Cherokee and Wagoneer. The J-10 and J-20 pickups are out, although the Jeep Comanche will continue to be built.

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