Are We Getting Ahead of Ourselves? Get the basics right before moving on Are you EVER going to get off the effing phone? the young woman says to me, no longer shy about getting in my face.

"Can't you SEE I'm enjoying the Lincoln Luxury car experience?" I snarl back at her, pointing to my dead car in the parking lot.

I learned a long time ago that if a group of strangers is getting ugly with you, sometimes the best defense is to convince them you're crazy and incapable of being rational. The strategy works. The angry young people harassing me about hogging the pay phone at the rest stop walk away.

How ironic, I think. I just spent a week in Traverse City, MI, listening to top auto industry executives explain how they intend to transform how consumers interact with vehicles. I hear how we soon will be able to custom-order vehicles and get them faster than ever before with "zero inconvenience" via new order-to-delivery initiatives. I hear how electronic telematics systems will bring the Internet into our cars and trucks and coddle and protect us like never before. And I hear how new Six Sigma quality efforts - which limit defects to 3.4 per million - could improve customer satisfaction by as much as 70%.

Now, despite glowing predictions, the currently available quality efforts and technology safety nets are failing me. I'm stranded in the middle of nowhere by a car that won't start. Despite all the claims about failsafe roadside assistance, my wife probably is going to have to drive at least 100 miles to rescue me. It's Friday night, after all, and the people on the other end of the fancy technology are knocking off work soon.

What happened? I'm on my way back home from Traverse City. I stop at a rest area. When I get back in the $40,000 Lincoln LS I'm driving, it won't start. I put the key in the ignition, turn the key ... nothing. Ford Motor Co. can't tell me the cause by press time, but I suspect it's a glitch in the transmission interlock system that makes sure drivers have their foot on the brake when they put the car in gear.

The point here is not to pick on Ford. During the past several years, Ward's staffers have been stranded in a number of test vehicles, including a Mercedes-Benz and several Hummers.

My plight is made worse because I don't have my cell phone. Why? The cellular infrastructure is so weak in northern Michigan, it's likely a cell phone wouldn't work even if I had one.

Hmmmm, I think. Given that Murphy's Law remains as inviolate as most of Newton's, it's possible that when any consumer really needs to be rescued, the telematics system simply may not connect with anyone. If it does, the roadside assistance program may be understaffed, unable to find a tow truck or dealership nearby, or unable to find a rental car after hours. In my case, it was all of the above.

So here I am, tethered to a pay phone, listening to Muzak in 5- and 10-minute intervals.

Meanwhile, the young and the restless start indicating they, too, need to use the telephone.

Fortunately a fellow journalist also on his way home from Traverse City happens to pull in and gives me a lift. The ride home gives me time to ponder:

* Bridgestone/Firestone is recalling 6.5 million tires that not only dissatisfy a lot of customers, but are linked to 62 deaths. The situation also is tarnishing the reputation of Ford, its largest customer. Almost all of the tires being recalled were manufactured at one Illinois plant with troubled labor relations and a reputation for cutting corners.

* Mitsubishi Motors announces it will recall about a million cars and may face criminal charges after it admits it systematically concealed customer complaints dating back to 1977 about defects, including fuel leaks, failing brakes, clutch problems and fuel tanks that fall off.

* Ward's AutoWorld Publisher Rich West leases a $40,000 luxury car. The first has the wrong options and electrical problems, so he gives it back and gets a new one. Gremlins also plague the second, yet the dealer doesn't deliver on promises, and doesn't return calls.

These problems won't be solved by sophisticated, Six Sigma solutions. Are we getting ahead of ourselves here?

Let's get the basics right first.

Ward's AutoWorld took home three awards for journalistic and graphic excellence last month: two national awards from the American Society of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) in the non-photo cover illustration and signed editorial categories and one for feature writing from the Detroit Press Club Foundation. Competing against more than 2,000 entrants, Senior Art Director Brian Kaldahl won a bronze plaque in ASBPE's national competition for his April '99 BMW cover illustration. I won a bronze plaque for the May '99 editorial "Dumbing Down Design." Editor-at-Large David C. Smith gets the lion's share of the credit for helping us win a statewide journalism award with his Sept. '99 cover story, "Cadillac Searches for its Roots." Senior International Editor Barbara McClellan, Associate Editor Andrea Wielgat and Senior Technical Editor Bill Visnic added depth and perspective to the piece with their reporting. Senior Managing Editor Mike Arnholt pulled the package together and made the many pieces fit.

With its U.S. market share hovering around 28%, it's hard for many of us to recall a time when GM was king and Chevrolet alone held 25.5% of U.S. vehicle sales. To set the stage for our piece analyzing the future of GM's biggest division, we turned to the work of David Chapple, a prolific automotive artist based in Grand Blanc, MI. Chevy actually hit its all-time sales peak in 1978, but we think Mr. Chapple's painting of a '59 Chevy Impala cruising Las Vegas really captures the pizzazz that once gave GM incredible momentum. To see more of Mr. Chapple's work, visit his website at www.autoart.com. You can also e-mail him at: info@autoart.com.