FORD WILL SELL THE SAFETY OF THE NEW 2002 Explorer due out this spring.

With good reason. The new SUV follows the Firestone tire shredding problems linked to all those fatal Explorer rollover accidents.

Ford fears the fallout from that mess could mar the new Explorer's launch.

It's ironic that the new SUV comes with innovative and impressive safety features, which by the way, were in the works well before the tire shreddings/rollovers.

Those safety features include a side-curtain airbag system that deploys from the headliner across 75% of the side glass area in the event of a rollover.

Special sensors measure whether the vehicle is tilting, how fast the lean angle is changing and whether the combination is leading to a rollover.

The side-curtain airbags deploy to prevent occupants from being ejected from the vehicle. The airbags remain inflated for up to six seconds to cover the potential time span of a rollover accident. In contrast, conventional airbags inflate and deflate in about 30 milliseconds.

Other safety features on the 2002 Explorer:

- An Advance Trac computer driven system that uses a series of sensors to measure whether the vehicle is sliding, then applies braking selectively to whichever wheel will best bring it back under control.

- A lowered front bumper beam that is at the same level of most cars. SUVs with high bumpers can cause massive front-end collision damage to cars because the SUVs override the cars' bumpers. Ford safety engineers say the Explorer's lower bumper beam would benefit the SUV and car alike in a front-end collision. That's because both vehicles' crash absorption zones would be lined up with each other.

Ford plans to sell other aspects of the new vehicle, including a more refined design and a smoothed-out ride.

But safety tops the list of selling points that will be incorporated into dealership sales training and product advertising.

The automaker walks a fine line by selling the new Explorer's safety features, says Dale Claudepierre, the new Explorer's vehicle line manager.

On one hand, there's plenty worth touting. But the automaker doesn't want to come across as being too defensive in the face of what Mr. Claudepierre calls "our recent experience with tires."

He adds, "It's a balance. We want to sell safety from a position of strength, not from a position of defending the product."

Firestone tires were on virtually all Explorers. But that changes with the 2002 Explorer. Customers will get the option of selecting Firestone or Michelin tires on the base model, Firestone or Goodyear tires on the higher lines.

"We did that in response to customers' concerns," says Mr. Claudepierre.

Toyota plans new dealer program Debuting in February is a new pilot program to boost customer satisfaction at Toyota dealerships - which in past years have scored poorly in CSI ratings.

"The program will let dealers know what to expect as far as minimum standards," says Alan DeCarr, vice president of sales for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. "We've identified 13 areas that require special handling."

He's not prepared to name all of them, but he says they include simple things such as meeting and greeting customers, new-age things such as understanding how to sell to the Internet customers and fundamental things such as satisfying service department customers.

The impending program will allow dealers to plot out their own ways to get to where Toyota ultimately wants them.

"It's not brain surgery. And it's not Blue Oval," says Mr. DeCarr, referring to Ford's controversial dealership certification program.

Mini is a big deal for BMW dealers Getting a Mini franchise has become a big deal for BMW dealers.

BMW is reviving the Mini, a tiny British car that sold in the U.S. during the 1960s. The all-new version goes on sale in March of 2002 at certain BMW dealerships across the U.S.

The question is: Which ones?

It should be interesting to find out because the dealer competition has been keen.

One hundred and fifty BMW dealerships applied for 70 available Mini franchises. They'll be located in metropolitan areas such as Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, Columbus and Minneapolis.

BMW will announce the "winners" by March. Dealers with the inside track are ones who commit to a dedicated sales area and staff, says Mini brand manager Richard Steinberg.

He adds, "We asked dealers to put together proposals, including what type of marketing plan they'd use.

"The proposals ranged from a 1 1/2 page letter to elaborate presentations with videos, CD-ROMs and web sites. It gave us a chance to see who's really interested."