The Ford Explorer, the nation's best-selling sport utility vehicle and the third-best seller overall, is weathering the Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall storm - so far.
Ford dealers in Maryland said sales of the Explorer held steady in August despite the publicity surrounding problems with certain models of Bridgestone/Firestone tires suspected of being a factor in 88 highway deaths.
Ford Motor Co. reported that sales increased slightly last month as the Explorer outsold the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Honda Civic.
Ford sold 40,157 Explorers in August, compared with 39,000 in August 1999.
"Sales dipped slightly during the first couple of weeks, but now they are back to normal," said Ronald Bortnick, president of Bortnick Ford in Upper Marlboro.
It is pretty much the same story at Bob Davidson Ford in Baynesville. "We get a lot of questions, but people are still buying," said Bruce Schindler, president of the dealership.
Explorer sales are holding their own around the state, according to Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, a trade group representing the majority of the state's auto dealerships. "The five Ford dealers on our board say that so far their sales have not felt the impact of the Firestone problem."
"It's a very, very popular vehicle," explained David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "People really like it."
Ford and its dealers have been scrambling the past month in an attempt to keep their Explorer customers happy.
Ford closed three assembly plants for two weeks, including its St. Louis Explorer assembly line, "to divert 70,000 tires to our dealers," said Sharon L. Drury, a spokeswoman for the company.
She said the move eliminated the production of about 10,000 Explorers, one of the company's most profitable vehicles. Cole estimates that Ford makes about $10,000 on each Explorer rolling off the assembly line.
Bortnick credits the manufacturer for keeping his business from suffering. "They allowed us to give our customers other comparable tires - Goodyear or Michelin - and bill Ford directly," he said.
Schindler said Ford has assured its Baltimore-area dealers that they will have a full supply of replacement tires by the end of the month.
He explained that not all Explorers are equipped with the models of Bridgestone/Firestone tires being recalled as a result of some losing their tread or blowing out.
Schindler said his dealership replaced tires on about 70 vehicles the first two weeks after the problem was brought to public attention. He said that only about a half-dozen customers were insistent that their tires be replaced with a brand other than Firestone.
Kitzmiller said some dealers are taking the tires off other vehicles on their lots and putting them on their Explorers to help maintain sales of the profitable sport utility vehicle.
Cole warned that the full impact of the Firestone problem may still be ahead for Ford and its dealers. "This story is still developing," he said, "and it's a big concern at Ford."