THE competition among automakers is brutal: the noise and bluster of a ``warranty war,'' cash-back come-ons, and the reemergence of low-interest new-car loans. Yet the biggest battle of all is for technological supremacy in the 1990s and beyond. An electronics revolution is on the way as more sophisticated computers move into the research labs, with the promise of improved safety, performance, and comfort.
Cars are moving into what Ford chairman Donald E. Petersen has described as ``the next stage in the evolution of vehicle electronics.'' One example of this advance: an electronic ride-control system that will automatically switch from a normal ride to a firm ride when a corner is taken hard, for example, or the brakes are applied quickly. This high-tech suspension system is already in the '87 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and in some Japanese makes. Chrysler will launch a new drive system with an electronically controlled transmission in 1989.
Other advances on the horizon are multiplex wiring, which combines a numerous functions in a single wire and would reduce the cobweb of wires under the hood; dual voltage systems to operate the car as well as the entertainment system; and 4-wheel steering, which allows side-to-side movement.
Now to the midpoint in the 1987-model year for US carmakers, as well as a peek at what's coming down the highway for 1988 and beyond. General Motors
Chevrolet's new 2-door Beretta and 4-door Corsica compacts have already hit the road, as has the high-priced Cadillac Allante convertible, a joint effort by the GM status car division and the Italian designer Pininfarina. The body is built in Italy, then shipped by special Boeing 747 aircraft to GM's newest assembly plant in Detroit, where the car is completed.
Pontiac will revive a familiar name tag with its South Korean-built LeMans, due to arrive in late spring as a 1988 model. GM owns 50 percent of its producer, Daewoo Motor Company Ltd. The front-drive LeMans subcompact, engineered by GM's West German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG, will be offered as both a 4-door hatchback coupe and 4-door notchback sedan, starting at a little over $6,000.
In 1988, the Oldsmobile Calais GT will get a new, high-performance, 16-valve Quad 4 engine, and an even faster engine in '89, to be followed by a still more potent turbo version.
Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac will get new 2-door sport coupes, the first cars in the new ``GM10'' program, which was set up to produce a front-wheel drive midsize car for the 1988 model year. Buick should also get its upscale, 2-seat Reatta coupe. In 1989, Chevrolet will get its own cars in the GM10 program, a 2-door coupe and 4-door sedan. A new Suzuki-built Sprint is planned, plus a bevy of new luxury cars.
In 1990, GM may debut the first of its long-ballyhooed Saturn cars, a 4-door sedan to be built in Spring Hill, Tenn. Pontiac expects to get a another vehicle from its South Korean partner, Daewoo - a wagon. In the early '90s, GM will begin to combine its basic car platforms - the amalgams of planning, designing, and engineering that underlie model lines - and thus sharply cut costs. By getting more car models off any single platform, the automaker expects to better compete with low-cost companies abroad. Ford Motor Company
Ford has a string of new-model cars in the showroom this year, among them the 4-wheel-drive Tempo/Topaz, plus the Mercury Tracer, an adaptation of the Mazda 323, which succeeds the Mercury Lynx. The Tracer is the first product to come out of Ford's new assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico.
The luxurious Mercury Scorpio, due in May as an '88 model, will be the second in Ford's Merkur lineup, produced in West Germany and now sold in Britain as the Scorpio Granada. Arriving in the summer is the Ford Festiva, built in South Korea, with Mazda engineering beneath its shell. In the fall the new front-wheel-drive Lincoln Continental, based on the highly popular Taurus, will succeed the rear-drive version of the luxury car.
An improved 3.8-liter V-6 will debut in the fall with the '88-model cars. In 1988, Ford will also launch a new 2-door, front-drive Mustang, based on the Mazda 626, out of the Japanese carmaker's new Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant. The current rear-drive Mustang is expected to remain on the market, at least for the next few years.
A new Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar by Ford is in the works, using a supercharged V-6 engine instead of a turbo.
In the early 1990s Ford will restyle the Escort, Taurus, and Sable. It will also redesign the Lincoln Town Car, rounding the corners, but keeping it about the same size as today's model.
An all-new Mark is on the way as well, to be followed by a restyled Tempo/Topaz. An all-purpose van, a derivative of the award-winning Taurus, also lies on the horizon.
Ford is slated to bring in an upscale convertible in 1989 or '90, built by Ford of Australia, to vie with the Cadillac Allante, the Buick Reatta, and the Chrysler TC Turbo by Maserati. The price, however, will be far less than the Italian-designed Allante. Chrysler Motors
Chrysler began the '87-model year with the Sundance/Shadow compacts, marked by crisp styling and handling. With the Chrysler LeBaron Coupe now on the road, the automaker will soon unleash the LeBaron convertible, a 4-passenger, upscale vehicle with electrically heated glass back window and power hydraulic top.
Arriving in the fall is a prestigious limited-edition convertible, dubbed Chrysler's TC by Maserati, one of three models to be developed jointly by Chrysler and Italy's Maserati. The convertible, at about $30,000, will be built near Milan.
Chrysler now offers the Mitsubishi-built V-6 engine in the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Upsized minivans will soon arrive.
Chrysler will launch a new front-wheel-drive luxury sedan for '88 using both the Chrysler and Dodge nameplates, part of a series of high-luxury, high-tech Chrysler cars over the next few years. The company expects to unveil even larger versions in 1989, when it will also get a new sporty coupe from its joint venture with Mitsubishi. A 4-door sedan is slated for 1990. American Motors/Renault
After a long dearth of new cars, this joint American and French effort has launched the Medallion, a compact sedan and wagon built in France. In the summer it will import the Alpine, a high-performance ``image car,'' also built in France. Both will be sold as '88-model vehicles.
The company will get the badly needed intermediate-size Premier, a 4-door sedan built in its new assembly plant in Canada.
A 4-wheel-drive Medallion is coming down the road, and in '89 AMC should have the Giugiaro-designed Allure, a 2-door specialty coupe, in its Premier line. A replacement for the Alliance is on the way, as are replacements for the Cherokee, Wagoneer, and Comanche.