A hood-to-hood face-off between Ford Motor Company and Chrysler is generating heat. Both companies, badly depressed by the lengthy malaise in the auto market, are showcasing all-new cars at the low end of the pole:
* Ford has launched its $3 billion Escort/Lynx, the company's widely touted "world car," which replaces the scarred Pinto/Bobcat and calls on the engineering and design expertise of two continents -- Europe and North America.
* Chrysler has unleashed its much- ballyhooed K-car, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, whose arrival on the automotive scene a few weeks ago was even heralded in agate-type ads on the front page of the NEw York Times.
All are front-wheel-drive, high-mileage small cars -- the Escort/Lynx a subcompact and the Aries/Reliant a 6-passenger compact.
Of the two, Ford is seen as the underdog, although that remains to be seen, of course. Clearly, the future of both companies hangs on the outcome.
While Ford's North American troubles have received heavy coverage on the airwaves and in print, Chrysler's bout with its lenders and the US Congress gave it star billing among carmakers.
Ford, of course, has had a large measure of "bad press" because of the highly publicized Pinto fire trial in Indiana -- for which the company was exonerated -- and the automatic-transmission-slippage problem, which may yet result in the wholesale recall of millions of Ford vehicles if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way.
Chrysler's problems are mainly economic. Also, Chrysler's leading man on the TV tube, chairman Lee A. Iacocca, has put the corporation's case succinctly and appealed repeatedly to US motorists to give Chrysler a chance.
Meanwhile, the big '81 product news from General Motors will be the upcoming J-car, replacement for the Chevrolet Monza and Pontiac Sunbird, which won't bow till next spring -- probably in May. The specialty J- car, like the new Chrysler and Ford entries this fall, are small, highly fuel-efficient, front- wheel-drive vehicles that are totally in step with the times.
Versions for the other divisions are planned as well.
Some people in the business think the new Ford and Chrysler small cars will do no more than pave the way for the GM onslaught to come. Also, all US manufacturers are locked in battle with the imports, which have been snaring around 30 percent of the new-car maket this year.
Looking ahead, observers expect GM to grow only stronger and more dominant in the marketing as a long string of new vehicles rolls off the lines and into he showrooms. Following its J-car entry next May, heavyweight GM says it will introduce a new product every six months through 1985.
Thus, Ford and Chrysler will give battle, not only with the imports, but with GM as well.
Looking to the 1981-model cars, here are some of the highlights: GENERAL MOTORS
The only significant body change is in the A-body specials -- Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, and Oldsmobile Cutlass -- which sport a more wedge-shape look for '81. An all-new, downsized, front-wheel-drive A-Body special is planned for the 1983-model year, 24 months from now.
The big automaker's new Computer Command Control system is being used on all its gasoline-powered cars so as to give the company its highest fuel economy in GM history.
E. M. Estes, president, says the new cars represent "nothing less than a technical watershed for General Motors."
GM also extends the powertrain warranty up to 24 months or 24,00 miles, with a $100 deductible coming into play after the first 12 months or 12,000 miles.
"We believe it will encourage customers to take care of their vehicles while protecting them against major repair costs," assets Mr. Estes.
The compact X-cars, introduced 18 months ago and a huge success, get higher-pressure tires for bette mileage, better engine service accessibility, and little more. A new sports X-car will be unveiled later in the model year.
The minicar Chevette gets halogen headlights as a new option, as well as power steering for models equipped with air conditioning and automatic transmissions. A Japanese-built diesel has limited availability.
The sporty Corvette, which was born at Chevrolet in 1953, gets a computer-controlled power train and the world's first fiber-glass-reinforced plastic rear leaf spring, which will be used with automatic transmissions.
A bolder grille is introduced on all full-size cars.
Pontiac, according to Automotive News, the trade weekly, will drop out of the big-car market a year from now.
Electronic engine controls are expanded for the new-model year.
Cadillac, which introduced electronic fuel injection on the Seville six years ago and the trip computer in 1978, offers the first variable-displacement engine for '81. A V-8-6-4 power plant, built by Cadillac, features digital fuel injection.It is the standard engine for all Cadillacs except the Seville where it is an option. A diesel is standard on Seville.
The variable-displacement engine uses only the number of cylinders required by the load. Rolling along a level Interstate route, it can maintain momentum with only half the cylinders firing, thus saving significantly on fuel. As the load increases, six, or even eight, cylinders come into play.
Ford talked about a variable-displacement engine a few years ago and had planned to introduce it on a light-duty truck, but then the plans were scrapped.
Indicating a dearth of significant new products for '81, Buick reprots a new blue crest -- in a stylized contemporary design, the division says -- which appears on the hood, new wheel covers, and available cornering lamps. GM has a new fluidic washer system for the windshield, which is said to improve the cleaning ability of the wiper blades. Washer fluid is pumped through an intricate series of channels in a small plastic element in the water nozzle. As a result, the channels create an oscillating side-to-side stream on the windshield. Presto! A cleaner windshield.
Puncture-sealing tires are an option for some GM cars. FORD MOTOR COMPANY
On Sept. 2, the first front-wheel-drive Ford Escort was driven off the Metuchen, N.J., assembly line by US Transportation Secretary Neil E. Goldschmidt. Sitting beside the secretary was Ford Motor Company chairman Philip Caldwell.
More than show-biz hype alone, it indicates the importance the automaker attaches to the new small car in its bid to pry the imports off its back.
Looking ahead, Mr. Caldwell said it was the first of a long line of front-wheel-drive cars which the company will introduce over the next few years. In the spring of 1981, for example, Ford will put a new f.w.d. sport coupe on the road; then six months later it will field the 5-door models of the Escort and companion Mercury Lynx.
"At the same time," Mr. caldwell reports, "the first of a new range of smaller-size luxury cars will debut."
Besides the Escort/Lynx, Ford has restyled the Granada, providing better visibility with more glass and a lower cowl. The standard-size LTD is essentially unchanged.
The Thunderbird, redone a year ago, carries over in '81. Standard engine on the base model is the 3.3-liter "6," replacing the 4.2-liter V-8, which now becomes an option. Fairmont, introduced three years ago, also is unchanged except for a wee dab here and there. The auto industry refers to such superficial treatment as "refinements."
The sporty Mustang drops the 2.3-liter turbocharged engine with three-speed automatic transmission, although it is optional with manual transmissions.
Automatic overdrive transmission, which Ford says will increase gas mileage by up to 4 miles an hour, is standard on the big LTD and Mercury Marquis and becomes an option on Thunderbird/Cougar equipped with a 4.2-liter V-8. The new transmission doesn't come into play till 40 m.p.h. Last year it was introduced on the company's luxury cars, the Lincoln continental and Continental Mark VI.
The new name for the Continental 2- and 4-door sedans is Lincoln Town Car. CHRYSLER CORPORATION
Heading up the parade is the corporation's loudly trumpeted K-cars, the front-wheel-drive Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.
What makes the cars a plus for Chrysler is their 6-passenger configuration, yet with a small body and engine -- making for high m.p.g. on the road. The GM X-cars are 5-passenger cars, not 6, as are the new Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx. The extra "seat" makes a big difference, Chrysler asserts.
The cars come in three body styles: 2-door sedan, 4-door sedan, and station wagon.
The company also has brought back the Imperial in the form of a newly refined , smaller, high-luxury vehicle that smacks of comfort and wealth. Chrysler hopes to sell up to 25,000 Imperials over the next 12 months. Imperial has been the flagship of the Chrysler fleet for more than 50 years.
Other than the Imperial and the K-cars -- a huge project in themselves -- the rest of the car lineup is basically unchanged.
The Plymouth Gran Fury comes in one model only, the Gran Fury Salon of 1980 having been cropped. AMERICAN MOTORS
The sleek front-wheel-drive Renault R-181 may steal the show at AMC dealerships this year.
After working in tandem with Renault for almost two years, the huge French government-owned carmaker now is shipping the 18i -- a 4-door sports sedna and 4 -door wagon -- to the US, along with the 2-door R-5, or Le Car. A 4-door version of Le Car is due in January. The R-18i (the "i" means fuel-injected) has a wheelbase of 96.1 inches, about the same as the AMC spirit.
AMC and Renault will build a jointly developed car at AMC's Kenosha, Wis., assembly plant in 24 months as a '83-model car.
Also, in a bid to extend the success of its Concord-derived, 4-wheel-drive Eagle, AMC has added two junior-size, 4-wheel-drive Eagles to ite aerie -- the 2 -door Eagle SX-4 and the 3-door, wagonlike Kammback. Bot hhave sprung from wthe AMC Spirit, while the senior Eagle, unveiled a year ago, was an extension of the Concord.
The point is to provide 4-wheel-drive capability without the severe as-mileage penalty that exists in 4-wheel-drive vehicles as a class.
The company has made few changes in the Concord or in its Jeep lineup for 1981.
AMC offers only two passenger-car engines for the '81-model year, a 2.5-liter , 4-cylinder engine which it buys from Pontiac and is standard across the board, and its own 4.2-lite, 6-cylinder engine, which has been around for some time.
Good mileage has not been one of AMC's strengths in recent years. Nonetheless, it reports a 7 percent gain in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) for 1981, compared with 1980. The company lists a CAFE rating of 23 m.p.g. for passenger cars, while the federal requirement is 22.
To reach 23 m.p.g., AMC cut the weight of its 6-cylinder engine by about 90 pounds.
With Jeep, the big emphasis is on m.p.g. The lighter-weight "6" will be standard i Wagoneer, Cherokee, and truck models, and optional in CJ vehicles. The 151-cubic-inch "4" is still the standard engine in the CJ-5 and CJ-7.
New for '81 are a 4-door Cherokee Chief and Cherokee Laredo, plus a Wagoneer Brougham.
AMC continues its highly touted buyer protection plan, a full warranty that is widely considered the best in the business, plus a 5-year warranty against penetration-type rust. No other US manufacturer gives such a lengthy no-rust-through guarantee.
For the second year running, AMC applies Ziebart rustproofing at the factory. Too, all exterior body panels are galvanized, the company reports.