Ford drives up in an air-sleek 2-seater

Ford Motor Company beat its domestic competition to the punch by being the first to introduce an under-$8,000 two-seater car which is designed especially for the US market. The Chevrolet Corvette costs more than double that figure.

Indeed, US automakers are on a small-car spree with more two-seaters on the way, 3-cylinder engines, and an array of high-mileage vehicles in a multibillion-dollar race to catch up with the imports.

The new Ford EXP, first two-seater to be built by Ford since the '57 Thunderbird, is a sport-coupe spinoff of the front-wheel-drive Escort. Yet there are many differences between the two vehicles. The EXP, for example, is 2 .8 inches lower than the Escort and longer overall by 6.4 inches. Too, it has a far more rakish shape than the front-drive Escort and one of the best coefficients of drag in the industry (0.37).

The Lincoln-Mercury division of the company also gets its own version of the car called the LN-7, but it's easy to tell the two cars apart -- especially from the back. The 3-door EXP, for example, looks more like a notchback while the LN-7 has a bubbleback rear door.

Certainly the EXP is not a sports car in the best European tradition or even the Japanese, but then it's not being sold as one either. Even so, it still has an abundance of sports-car flair. And while it never was intended as a fast-getaway-from-the-light kind of car, it is no slouch, either.

"Don't expect to get into the car and have a 5-ring performance because it's not a big, beefy-engined car," says Scottish race driver Jackie Stewart, who won three world championships in Ford-powered cars. Where it does win its laurels is in its road-holding ability and its handling."

Indeed, he is right. The EXP handles superbly well in tight turns and evasive maneuvers on the road -- a good feeling for the motorist who still likes to drivem his car and not be driven bym it.

Where the 1.6-liter car does give a high performance is at the gas pump. Ford rates the car at 29 miles per gallon in the city and 47 on the highway, using the Environmental Protection Agency dynamometer test cycle.

The car I'm driving doesn't quite meet that standard, but then it's a "green car" with less than 500 miles on the odometer when I first got into it. Mileage will improve as the miles roll up.

The snappy cars are the first of the 1982-model array and beat the General Motors J-car compacts to the road by a month.

The carmaker hopes to keep the new two-seater around for at least five or six years. To keep it fresh, the EXP-LN7 will probably get electronic fuel injection and a diesel-engine option in the future as well as a convertible.

"We're looking at convertibles in our forward market plans," Mr. Lataif admits.

Ford is aiming the car at singles, childless households, and women.

Women, in fact, now account for 52 percent of the female population and about 40 percent of the work force.

"Importantly," says Louis Lataif, head of the Ford division, "they represent 40 percent of the car purchases in the US." Further, people from 21 to 44 are the largest and fastest-growing segment of the population.

What Ford is counting on is that these people do not need a car with a lot of seating capacity but most of them want good fuel economy. Also, says Mr. Lataif , "they want a car that is fun to drive and good to handle and that looks good on them."

Agreed, the new EXP is fun to drive and is the frist car in half a century to carry the Ford oval.

Ford will spend no less than $12 million to advertise the EXP-LN7 over the next three months to make sure the public knows it's on the road.

Actually, it's hard to miss it.

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