Ford has a lot riding on redesign of its two best-selling cars


DETROIT -- The Ford Motor Co. is taking a billion-dollar gamble by radically redesigning its two best-selling cars, the Taurus and Mercury Sable.

Although the 1996 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable won't go on sale until the fall, Ford unveiled them at press conferences at the North American International Auto Show here, which runs through Jan. 15.

Several other new vehicles are making their debuts here, including Chrysler's newly redesigned trio of minivans, the Land Rover Range Rover, and a slew of new concept cars such as Oldsmobile's sporty Antares and Buick's XP2000. Foreign makers have many new cars on display, such as Toyota's new sport-utility vehicle, the Rave-4, and the Honda Odyssey minivan and the BMW 7 series, already on sale.

No manufacturer has as much riding on its new cars as Ford. The Taurus sedan has been America's best-selling car for the past two years. When final sales figures for the 1994 model year are compiled this week, Taurus probably will be on top again, said Ford Division General Manager Ross Roberts.

The new Taurus and Sable look nothing like the vehicles they will replace in nine months. The Taurus and Sable have dramatically curved bodies, sloping front ends and futuristic interiors.

The cars' styling "is advanced, avant-garde. It's state of the art. It's making a statement by being the best combination of luxury and sportiness," Mr. Roberts said.

Mr. Roberts wouldn't be specific about prices but did say the Taurus would start at under $20,000.

Among the new or redesigned vehicles at the Detroit show were:

* Chrysler's redesigned minivans -- the Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country. Except for a few nuts and bolts, Chrysler has completely overhauled its minivans, which are the best-selling in the industry.

When the three new vans go on sale next month as '96 models, buyers will be able to opt for such things as sliding doors on both sides. Minivans traditionally have offered a sliding door on the right side.

Chrysler's Production Manager, Dick Winter, said the optional left-side sliding door will add between $400 and $500 to the price. Chrysler thinks that as many as two-thirds of its buyers will opt for the extra sliding door.

Mr. Winter said Chrysler's marketing strategy will remain the same as it has been since the automaker introduced the original minivan in 1984. There will be a short-wheelbase entry-level model priced at about $16,500, as well as long wheelbase, all-wheel-drive and luxury models. Power will come from a new 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder or an optional Mitsubishi-made 3.0-liter V-6. Both engines will be coupled to an automatic transmission.

* Oldsmobile Antares. Olds boss John Rock has said this new sedan is actually the next Cutlass Supreme, which is due next spring as a '97 model.

From the side, the Antares looks similar in shape to a Chrysler Cirrus -- it is rounded and aerodynamic. It also features a stylized logo like the one Olds uses on the hot-selling Aurora sports/luxury sedan. No word yet on prices. The car is set to debut in the 1996 model year.

* Buick XP2000. Lingering financial troubles at General Motors have put the fate of this futuristic, ultra-high-tech sedan in doubt. The XP2000's mechanical components, such as the drive train and chassis, are based on those used by Holdens, GM's Australian subsidiary. In fact, the XP2000 concept car, sort of a four-door Riviera, was built in Australia. A production version of the car was set to be built in the United States until a few weeks ago when GM canceled the project, citing financial concerns. However, Buick General Manager Ed Mertz said GM might reconsider building the car if it gets strong reviews from consumers at auto shows.

The show car features a slew of high-tech, voice-activated gadgets. They include a cellular phone, an in--- TV screen, the climate control system and a navigation system that could be used with an Intelligent Vehicle Highway System, or IVHS. IVHS would allow the car to drive itself at high speeds over specially built roads. Such systems are being studied.

The XP2000 features eight air bags and a detection system that alerts the driver if an object or another vehicle comes too close to the car. Mr. Mertz said some of the car's high-tech features would probably be offered soon.

* Land Rover Range Rover: Charlie Hughes, Rover's U.S. boss, said the Range Rover features a new frame and body, and an improved air suspension system. It will sell for $54,000 -- just $1,500 more than the 1994 model.

The new Rover wears squarish headlights instead of its traditional round lights and has a much smoother-looking body.

Mr. Hughes said Rover will continue to offer the original Range Rover in its short wheelbase form as the Range Rover Classic. Price: $45,000.

Mr. Hughes said the new Range Rover is outfitted with all the equipment one would expect to find on an expensive European sedan and that it handles like a sports sedan.

"This is the gold standard of 4x4s. It has a level of equipment unmatched in any 4x4. On the road, it is engineered to meet sedan standards," he said.

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