If there ever was a chance for Ford Motor Co. to make money in the small-car market, 2000 is the year.

With the arrival of the Focus, Ford believes it has the product to go bumper-to-bumper with the imports and still pad the company's bottom line.

It won't be easy. The small car buyer has no less than 31 models to choose from, but the Focus does represent the company's best shot at compact-car profit-making in a long time. Combine that with Ford's dominating lineup of trucks and its newly formed

Premier Automotive Group (PAG) and the No.2 automaker suddenly has the chance to threaten General Motors Corp.'s title as the world's largest automaker. It won't happen in 2000, but by 2004 the automotive landscape could look mighty different.

Ford officially began selling the Focus Oct. 4. The front-drive Focus sedan, wagon and in first quarter next year, a 3-door, eventually will replace both the Escort and the Contour. But for 2000, all three models will be sold on the same lot. Contour, offered now with just a V-6, is unchanged for 2000, as is the Escort sedan and ZX2 coupe, although the latter gets a new optional sport suspension.

Ford continues its efforts in 2000 to put a safety face on the blue oval. So while Chairman Bill Ford Jr. continues to paint the company environmental green, Ford also wants to carve out a niche on the safety side. Insiders say Ford's internal mandate is that all of its cars be rated five star in the government's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) frontal and side crash test ratings.

The '99 Windstar minivan gets it, the Focus is expected to achieve it, and the redesigned '00 Taurus was engineered with advanced safety features such as dual-stage front air bags and sensors to determine safety belt usage, the position of the driver and a crash severity sensor.

Safety features and environ-mental friend-liness - but not fuel economy numbers - are what Ford is touting on the truck side of the business, a wise strategy considering its new Excursion is the largest sport/utility currently on the road. The F-Series Super Duty-derived SUV has come under fire from environmental groups for its size and mammoth appetite for fuel, but apparently that hasn't hurt orders for the vehicle, as Ford claims this year's production already is sold out.

Even so, Ford is putting a full court press on the public and media about the vehicle's friendlier personality.

That includes the Excursion being certified as a low emissions vehicle (LEV) and boasting a new device called "BlockerBeam," a crossmember located slightly below and behind the front bumper that prevents a car from submarining beneath the SUV in a front end collision. A similar setup is used at the rear, utilizing tubular steel that doubles as a mount for a trailer hitch.

The device eventually could make its way on to future Ford pickups, such as the new F-150 SuperCrew, a full 4-door pickup with a short bed that goes on sale sometime in the first quarter of 2000 or the Explorer Sport Trac, a 4-door Explorer with a 4-ft. (1.2-m) pickup bed.

The two vehicles are among a throng of new pickup/SUVs planned by Ford and other automakers in an effort to carve out a bigger piece of what has become a very crowded segment filled with many cookie- cutter offerings. And as a defense against standard-configuration trucks finally beginning to "stale" with buyers after five years of outrageous sales.

Premier Automotive Group Ford's Lincoln division has stumbled to fourth place in the U.S. luxury sales race, but the advent of the company's Premier Automotive Group should give the brand a more refined focus for its future. In addition to Lincoln, the PAG includes newly acquired Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin. Ford's purchase of Volvo led to the creation of the PAG and is the driving force behind the decision not to sell the 2000 Lincoln LS in Europe.

It's doubtful Lincoln vehicles will ever be sold or driven on European roads for fear they could hurt Volvo sales, particularly the company's bread and butter S70/V70. The change already can be seen in advertisements touting the LS as an "American Luxury" car, never mind that it looks more European than American.

Still, Lincoln is out of the '00 model year blocks on a strong note, all due to the arrival of the all-new LS in May. Brisk sales, favorable reviews of the new sedan's platform and engines, similar to those used for the more expensive Jaguar S-Type, are among the many reasons.

Certainly the LS won't push Lincoln to the top of the luxury heap, but it's a solid step to where Ford hopes to take the division in the coming years.

The Continental gets the boot after 2002, which means it will remain basically unchanged. The Continental name likely will disappear, much like the Thunderbird did, and could return as a large coupe if Lincoln execs in California get their way.

The '00 Town Car grows 6-ins. in length from behind the B-pillar, as Lincoln decides to offer an optional in-house extension to those in search of more rear seat legroom. The longer Town Car is said to look more proportionally correct than the existing model.

Lincoln is aiming the slightly longer sedan at limo operators, but also believes consumers in search of a larger car, and the possibility of having a reclining backseat, will be attracted to the vehicle, too.

The Navigator is largely unchanged, sans new climate-controlled seats. The Johnson Controls Inc. seats have five heating and cooling settings.

Trucks aren't in Volvo's lineup, at least not yet, but the Swedish automaker likely will see a car/SUV crossover similar to the Lexus RX300 (seemingly everyone's bogey these days) sometime after the new millenium. Volvo calls it a family utility vehicle, having elements of an SUV, minivan and station wagon. It will be based on the S80's P2X platform.

Now under the PAG wing, Volvo has the potential to post the kind of sales it enjoyed in the 1980s when it was among the top five selling luxury brands in the U.S. The company is shooting for sales of 200,000 annually within five years, up from 110,000 in 1998.

The arrival of the S40 sedan and V40 wagon to the U.S., vehicles built in the Netherlands at a factory Volvo shares with Mitsubishi Motors Corp., goes after a younger crowd, including many first-time entry- level luxury car buyers.

The S40 is similar in size to the Audi A4, but at a slightly lower price ($22,900 sedan, $23,900 wagon). Power comes from a 1.9L DOHC turbocharged 4-cyl. capable of 160 hp. Volvo forecasts sales of 12,000 units for the remainder of 1999, reaching 30,000 in the first full year.

Jaguar continues to enjoy strong sales, thanks to the success of the all-new S-Type, rolled out in mid-1999. The S-Type will lead Jaguar's 2000 model lineup. Joining the lineup in 2000 will be a 370-hp supercharged XKR. The XJ sedan lineup goes largely unchanged.

Later in 2000, Jaguar could show its '01 BMW 3-series fighter, codenamed X400, based on the Contour/Mondeo platform and powered by a Jaguar version of the strong 2.5L V-6 Duratec.

For the money-is-no-object crowd, Ford's flagship brand in its Premium Group, Aston Martin, rolls out one of its fastest cars yet: the DB7 Vantage. Powered by a V-12 (basically two Duratec V-6 engines), the 5.9L all-aluminum engine pumps out some 414 hp and 400 ft.-lbs. of torque. Price is expected to be in the $140,000 range, but if you have to ask . . .