A Leap of Faith - My First Detroit Car

By , Gregory M. Lamb is the Monitor's features editor.

MY wife and I just bought our first American car - ever.

A cranberry-colored 1992 Ford Escort sits in our garage: a giant, high-gloss jelly bean. Next to it is our 1987 Mazda 626. The Mazda, made in Japan, has 92,000 miles on it with nary a major repair. It's answered the morning call every day since we brought it home on Dec. 30, 1986. Oh, sure, the driver's power window gave out at the toll booth one day last year. But it has the original clutch and the engine still purrs.

I walk around our new Ford, eyeing it warily. Will it be as good a friend as the Mazda has been?

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My wife and I have been part of an automotive "lost generation," thousands of Americans who have never owned an American-made car.

Nancy learned to drive behind the wheel of a Volkswagen beetle. Once she began teaching and making her own way in the world, she bought a Toyota. My first car was a used 1968 Fiat. Italian. A rust-hole under the mat meant a fountain sprung up every trip through a mud puddle. But it was fun to drive, when it worked.

After we married, we bought a Mazda. A few years later, we bought another. A few years more and we traded one of them in on a bigger Mazda with more gizmos. We were part of Detroit's nightmare: drivers satisfied with their foreign-made car and unwilling to risk anything American.

It wasn't anger at the Japanese, but guilt, I think, that made us look for an American car. Perhaps it was the night in front of the evening news last winter, watching as auto workers waited anxiously to see if their plants would close. In a later report, from a plant that will stay open, we saw guarded relief. At one that will be closed, we shared in the near-despair.

Suddenly, my free-trade, buy-'em-from-whoever-makes-'em-best philosophy felt a little cold-blooded.

The automobile publications I consulted were encouraging: Unlike a few years ago, lots of American models are now considered among the best in their class. Even among small cars, a market once thought lost forever to the Japanese and Koreans, American manufacturers are players again. Consumer Reports magazine, for example, rates the General Motors Saturn and Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer twins among the best small cars, right alongside Hondas and Toyotas.

We chose a Ford dealer based on its location along our commuting route. Overall, the buying experience was a pleasant surprise. The word seems to have gotten out that high-pressure salesmanship may work once, but it doesn't bring in repeat customers or generate referrals.

Based on our experience, Ford and its dealers are trying hard to do things right. A 10-step program rewards salespeople who treat customers well. To my layman's eyes and ears, the car was delivered clean and in perfect condition. Yes, we had to endure a series of three salesmen or sales managers trying to add on everything from paint sealant to burglar alarms. But it hadn't been any different at the foreign car dealer.

Of course, buying American isn't really so simple. The Escort's drivetrain and chassis are based on Mazda designs. And I learned by calling Ford's 800 number that the car was assembled either in Michigan or ... Mexico. The customer relations rep said that if I told him my Vehicle Identification Number, he'd be happy to let me know which plant assembled my vehicle.

I've decided I don't want to find out. At least it was built in North America.

Ask me in five or 10 years, and I'll give you my final verdict on my new North American friend. Right now we're still getting used to each other; I haven't yet given away my heart.

But I want to.

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