How many categories will there be in the sport/utility vehicle (SUV) segment? For now, no one really knows, but Ford Motor Co.'s Sport Trac is the first of a new kind of truck that further blurs the concept.

Aimed at buyers who want an SUV but need - or think they need - the versatility of a pickup truck, Ford says customer input drove development of the Sport Trac.

"A lot of SUV customers told us they loved the roominess (of Explorer), but they wanted more versatility to carry more stuff," says Steve Ross, chief program engineer.

Sport Trac features a host of industry firsts, including a one-touch power rear cab window, 12-volt power outlet in the cargo box and a Budd Co.-supplied sheet molding composite (SMC) plastic box that is 20% lighter than a similar-size steel bed and provides 29.6 cu.-ft. (838L) of cargo space. It is the first Ford vehicle to get a composite box, but F-Series pickup boxes likely will soon follow. The material is lighter and more durable than a steel bed, meaning plastic bed liners are no longer needed, Ford says.

To ensure a perfect paint match, the Sport Trac's outer composite box panels ride on steel skids through the paint shop with the cab. The panels then meet up with the composite "tub" from Budd. Workers attach the painted outer panels, steel tailgate (borrowed from the F-150), 12-volt cargo powerpoint and other dressings before the completed box is attached to the frame.

Although Sport Trac shares about 80% of its parts with the 4-door Explorer, its frame is a substantial 14.25 ins. (36 cm) longer and 40% stiffer, thanks to new gussets on the vehicle's longitudinal beams, new tubular crossmembers and thicker side rail frames.

The Sport Trac may appear compact, but its 129.5 in. (320 cm) wheelbase is no less than 6.8 in. (17 cm) longer than an Expedition - which, perceptually, looks like a much larger vehicle - and overall length is 1.3 ins. (3.3 cm) greater.

That extra length means the cabin is just as spacious as the 4-door Explorer, with a cargo area that measures 50 ins. (127 cm) long and 19.7 ins. (50 cm) high.

When more space is needed, an optional stainless steel cargo cage provides 22.6 ins. (57 cm) of additional storage area with the tailgate open. When not in use, the U-shaped cage pivots 180 degrees to rest in the bed or can be removed altogether.

"We tried to do everything we could to make the vehicle as versatile as we could," Mr. Ross says.

To reduce noise, a key focus with the Sport Trac, solid rubber body mounts were replaced with micro-cellular urethane ones - a first for Ford, plus the use of laminated steel that runs from the footwell to the instrument panel and new rubber flooring.

The Sport Trac will be offered with just one engine, Ford's 4L SOHC V-6 that produces 205 hp at 5,250 rpm and 240 lb.-ft. (323 Nm) of torque at 3,750 rpm. Ford also plans to offer a 5-speed manual next fall, but for now the 5R55E 5-speed automatic will be the only transmission available when Sport Trac goes on sale in late January.

Sport Trac will be priced at $23,050 for the 2-wheel-drive version and $25,800 for the 4-wheel-drive (both including destination/delivery charges).

Job 1 is Jan. 31. Sport Trac goes on sale in February. Ford is forecasting production of 60,000-80,000 Sport Tracs annually, but can easily build more without upsetting the line rhythm at its Louisville, KY, assembly plant, thanks to the installation of a flexible new single body shop that can accommodate all Explorer and Mountaineer models.

That flexibility should make it easier to bring on the all-new Explorer in third quarter 2000. The slightly longer vehicle will feature an optional third-row seat and independent rear suspension. A more powerful 4L V-6 (in the 235 hp to 240 hp range) is expected to debut for the '03 model year Explorer.