Mercury Tracer - Japanese design, Mexican workmanship

Ford calls it a ``fully equipped, front-wheel-drive subcompact car with an international heritage.'' Translated, that means the Mercury Tracer is a clone of the Mazda 323. Both cars are well-conceived, solidly built in the late-'80s tradition and economical to buy and run. The Tracer replaces the Mercury Lynx. The real difference is that the front-wheel-drive Mercury Tracer is produced in Ford's new half-billion-dollar assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, while the Mazda 323 is built in Japan. Ford, by the way, owns 25 percent of Mazda.

The Tracer is one of the first cars to reach the United States from ``south of the border.'' Volkswagen is now selling its Brazilian-built Fox in the US, while General Motors plans to ship up to 120,000 Mexican-built Buick Centuries, Chevrolet Celebrities, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Cieras to the US by 1989. The GM plant in Ramos Arizpe now produces cars for the Mexican market as well as some 17,000 pickup trucks for the US, according to Automotive News, the weekly trade journal.

The reason is simple: cost. Mexican labor rates are a fraction of what they are in the US - but this doesn't mean the quality of the finished product will suffer. Far from it. It's hard to see any difference in the fit and finish of the Tracer as opposed to the Mazda 323. The Mexican workers are well-trained and they need the work. Thus, there is a definite incentive to do the job right.

One thing that Ford didn't escape in Mexico, though, is the strike weapon. A six-week strike at the plant cost the US automaker more than 7,000 Tracers, even as Ford was spending $38 million to advertise the availability of the new car. Workers won an average 34.5 percent pay increase, up to around $1.40 an hour. Before the strike, workers were earning the equivalent of $1.09 an hour for a 45-hour work week.

The ``Mazda connection'' becomes very apparent when you step into the Tracer and look around, especially from the driver's seat. The dash layout and controls are right out of the 323, but again, that's not bad. Mazda has a good reputation for producing cars that are laid out with the motorist in mind.

In design, the aerodynamic Tracer has flush door handles, a low-profile front end with double-bar grille, front and rear wraparound bumpers, the appearance of flush glass because of the design, and a nicely curved, stylish back end.

The Mazda-built 1.6-liter, electronically fuel-injected engine provides a spirited drive at low cost. While the government figures the road mileage at 28 in the city and 35 on the Interstate, you'll more likely run in the range of 25 to 30, depending on the usual variables such as traffic, the condition of the car and the road, and weather.

A solid road feel makes the Tracer a truly fun car to drive. Wheelbase of the subcompact Mercury Tracer is 94.7 inches, while the curb weight for the four-door is 2,185 pounds.

Standard equipment includes a tachometer and trip odometer, tinted glass, five-mile bumpers front and rear, split folding rear seats, rear window defroster, three-speed windshield wipers, and digital clock. Among the optional equipment are automatic transmission, power steering, speed control, and air conditioning.

Base price for the two-door hatchback is $7,926; the four-door hatchback is $8,364. Obviously, this puts the ``fully equipped price'' in the $10,000 class. A wagon will be introduced later this year.

What might you not like about it? The rear trunk is deep, but the access is difficult if the stored item is awkward in size or heavy to lift. Legroom is scant in the back and so is the headroom. Up-front room is fine. The roof lining and sun visors in the tested car are too light in color and thus easily soiled. A few adjustments to the sun visors will soon show the fingerprints. Why do the interior stylists call for a material that is so impractical in use? Also, you may never locate the two horn buttons on the steering wheel if you need to honk the horn in a hurry.

There are a number of small storage spaces beneath the dashboard and in the doors. The trunk cargo cover behind the right seat can hold lightweight items, such as clothing, but I wouldn't put anything heavy on it.

Under-the-hood engine accessibility is good even for the back-yard mechanic.

The Tracer is aiming at such cars as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and Chevrolet Nova - the latter built in a Toyota-run former Chevrolet assembly plant in Fremont, Calif.

Ford has done a good job in its version of the Mazda 323. But with Ford a major stockholder in Mazda, it's all in the family, so to speak.

Meanwhile, the potential exists for an increasing flow of cars from Latin America to the US as carmakers hunt for more ways to trim production costs. The United Automobile Workers (UAW), however, says it will fight the loss of jobs at the national contract talks next summer.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.