Taking the Edge Off Ford design now is headed in the right direction "What are the least favorite cars here?"

"Ford and Opel cars aren't very popular," the young-but-knowledgeable Belgian tells me as he drives our van, stuffed with American journalists, to Antwerp from the Brussels airport. "The Opels are too dull and the Fords are too ..." his voice trails off as he searches for the right word in English. "Futuristic looking" he finally says, not entirely satisfied with the phrase. He's referring to the dramatic "new edge" design championed by Ford's former design chief Jack Telnack, exemplified in cars such as the unusual looking Ka.

Almost on cue, a little Ford Ka passes us, followed by an Opel Astra, (neither of which are sold in the U.S.) and I understand. The designers at General Motors Corp.'s Adam Opel unit are afraid of doing anything too radical, those at Ford seem to be trying too hard to be different.

I have been in the heart of Western Europe for only an hour, but already it seems easy to understand why Ford and GM are struggling here: They both need a design overhaul. The sleek, sophisticated exterior and interior design of Volkswagen and its Audi luxury division is what is setting the standard here, even more so than in North America.

To Ford's credit, it saw which way the wind was blowing three years ago, replacing the retiring Mr. Telnack with J Mays, an American who ran Audi AG design from 1993 to 1994 and then was an outside consultant to Ford and other automakers. He was named vice president of design at Ford in the fall of 1997.

"I have been brought in to make some changes and I fully intend to do that," Mr. Mays told Ward's AutoWorld not long after he took the reins.

He didn't waste any time. In late '97 Mr. Mays - who designed the Volkswagen New Beetle Concept 1 and the stunning Audi AVUS concept - reportedly took one look at the plans for the '01 Mondeo and quietly told Jac Nasser, then Ford's global head of product development, it had to be done over if it was going to compete with design leaders like the Volkswagen Passat, Audi A6 and Alfa 156.

Mr. Nasser agreed, and in early 1998, Mr. Mays moved to Cologne, Germany, and reportedly redesigned much of the car himself, adhering to all the old "hardpoints" to save development time. As the months passed, Mr. Mays hired Chris Bird from Audi and the men responsible for the original Mondeo design took early retirement. Claude Lobo, head of Ford's European design operations resigned.

Was it worth it, or should Ford have stayed the course three years ago?

After seeing the crucially important Mondeo unveiled in Paris - and spending some seat time in the car at Ford's test track in Lommel, Belgium - my answer is an unqualified yes. It's not a show-stopper, but it's well done for a bread-and-butter sedan starting at around $17,000, and it so far has been well-received in Europe. The interior is especially well crafted, with lots of little details, such as brushed metal interior door handles and other bright metal bits that you would expect to find in the interior of a much more expensive Audi.

This should be a vindication of sorts for Mr. Mays. When you're a hot-shot hired in from the outside, you're going to have detractors, but Mr. Mays, now 46, has endured more than his share of criticism since replacing Mr. Telnack. Lots of designers are told by reviewers that their work is bland or ugly, but Mr. Mays has been savaged by critics appalled by his efforts to expand Ford's "design vocabulary" into the world of furniture design (the 021C concept) and the Internet (the 24/7). One particularly vitriolic review called the O21C "a steaming pile of crap."

The strong design of the new Mondeo also reinforces the idea that the next generation Taurus also will be evocative of VW/Audi designs, resembling the beautiful - and very Audi-like - Prodigy concept car unveiled at last January's Detroit Auto Show. If that happens, it would not be the first time Ford design has marched closely in step with Audi.

Mr. Mays first caught Mr. Telnack's attention when the Audi 80 - May's first project for the German automaker - debuted at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor show. Its aerodynamic shape, shorter-than-normal rear deck and expanded greenhouse were very similar to a radical new design Mr. Telnack was working on at the time: the first-generation Taurus, one of Ford's most successful cars ever.