Ford goes on the offensive - with Tempo and Topaz

They were launched from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, the ''Fighting I'' of World War II and Vietnam. Their job: fight the competition and give Ford Motor Company a bigger stake in the compact-car market at a time when American auto sales are slowly regaining lost ground.

The USS Intrepid, now an sea-air-space museum in New York Harbor, cost $42 million when it was built in 1942-43. The all-new, front-wheel-drive Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, by contrast, cost $1 billion to design, engineer, and put on the road.

Such has been the impact of inflation. But it also shows the massive cost of participating in the auto derby these days.

The Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz are the second step this year in Ford Motor Company's ''identity drive'' as it turns to more aerodynamic shapes in its new cars. The Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar were the first evidence of this trend at Ford.

Significantly, and despite the ''fighting'' speech of Ford chairman Philip Caldwell, the new cars are not aimed directly at the Japanese. Rather, asserts the Ford chairman, they're aimed at General Motors and Chrysler, meaning the ''alphabet cars'' - the X, J, and A cars from GM, plus the Chrysler E-Class and K-cars.

''Our principal competitors are the domestic producers,'' Mr. Caldwell insists, adding: ''I think there is too much emphasis on the small-car players (the Japanese) in this (compact-size) market.''

Even so, the new Ford compact cars will be competing nose to nose with such highly rated Japanese imports as the Toyota Camry, Honda Prelude, and Mazda 626. Too, while particularly strong in the subcompact end of the market as well as in sports cars - the Datsun 280-ZX and Mazda RX-7, for example - the Japanese are building up speed in the upsize and upscale market and, even if not an overwhelming force today, may fit into that category over the next couple years.

The fact that the Ford cars were unveiled on an aircraft carrier has to carry some significance - either a blatant message to the Japanese or simply a boost to Ford's morale.

Public-relations hype? Sure. But the undertones were clear.

''We're in a fighting mood,'' Caldwell says, when asked about the choice of launch site. Why the Intrepid? Caldwell's answer: ''Let's be practical about this. Have you ever thought what it would be like to try and drive the cars on the Staten Island ferry?''

And drive we did - on the flight deck of the Fighting I. A few sharp turns around the pylons. No more.

The best test, however, was on the 290-mile return trip to Boston via the New York Thruway and Massachusetts Turnpike. The Tempo and Topaz come as either 2 -door or 4-door notchback sedans, although a wagon and convertible could be on their way if, in Ford's view, there is enough of a market to warrant the expense of developing them.

''Wouldn't it look great as a convertible?'' quips Caldwell.

Nor are there plans for a 6-cylinder engine in the car, although a turbocharged ''4'' is on the way.

Wheelbase is a shade under 100 inches. Thus space is quite sufficient for five adults, although four may be better. The trunk is a surprise because of its size.

The engine is a new 2.3-liter ''4'' with ''high-swirl combustion'' and plenty of low-end torque. In other words, the pickup from a standstill is impressive. It is Ford's first production fast-burn power plant. Engine control rests in an on-board computer that Ford calls EEC IV - or Electronic Engine Control IV. The system is able to digest up to a million functions a second - or 1,200 for each turn of the crankshaft.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists the car's economy at 28 miles a gallon in the city and 43 on the Interstate. In hundreds of miles of commuter-type driving, I was on the low side - 26.2 m.p.g. On the New York-Boston trip, I got about 28. The car, remember, is brand new and had 38 miles on the meter when I took over the wheel.

The Tempo handles the highway craters of either Manhattan or Boston with aplomb, gliding over the bumps with a minimum of jar inside the car. Four-wheel independent suspension is the trick. Steel-belted radials are standard. A handling suspension is optional on Tempo and standard on Topaz.

And the price? The Tempo carries a sticker of $6,840; the upscale Topaz is $7 ,355.

Ford Motor Company is especially buoyant about the new cars. Giving it added reason to shout is the fact that Hertz is buying 15,200 cars, the largest single order Hertz has ever made. Some 63,000 dealer orders were in hand before the first car came off the assembly line.

The upswing in the economy also is buoying Ford. ''We expect this year's car sales to be about 1 million more than last year,'' Caldwell says, ''and next year's market to be another million larger than in 1983.

''This gives us an upward slope. And I think it's far better to introduce a car when the slope is upward rather than downward. We've had too much experience in the last two or three years with downward slopes.''

Ford looks for 150,000 Tempo-Topaz sales a year.

But will the car make money for Ford? Caldwell says it will. ''We expect this car to be profitable to us,'' he declares.

The inability of the US auto industry to make money on its small cars has long been a problem for Detroit.

Pointing to a Tempo on the flight deck of the Intrepid, Caldwell asserts: ''They are Ford's 'Fighting I.' ''

Meanwhile, looking west toward Japan and wagging a finger, the chairman says that in April Ford gained market leadership in Japan over GM, adding:

''We sold 124 cars and GM sold 108.''90

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