Okay, no need to go into it all here - you can read the latest on the Ford Motor Co.-Bridgestone/Firestone hysteria on page eight and 17. Suffice to say that Ford enters the new model year in a laying-low sort of mode.

There's a bit of low-laying in terms of new products, too, which might be just as well. With the most inconvenient of timing, Ford plans to launch the all-new, '02 Explorer replacement in January, but that's essentially straight into the maw of a tire-safety controversy, which has thrown a hint of unsavory pallor over the best-selling Explorer.

Apart from the '02 Explorer, with its promise of a contemporary rear axle (finally) and concordant improved driving dynamics, Ford's biggest coming '01 attraction is the '02-model Thunderbird, slated for a spring intro. Thankfully, the car once again is a 2-passenger, 2-door roadster, the better to make us all forget the last couple of decades worth of Thunderbird bastardization.

Power is supplied by one and only one engine, the same 3.9L DOHC V-8 you can already get in the Lincoln LS; Ford's claiming 260 hp. Also borrowed from the LS (and Jaguar S-Type) is the rear-drive, all-independent-suspension platform that reputedly needed some not-so-moderate fettling from Ford's handling boffins, particularly at the rear.

The T-Bird is handsome without leaning too heavily on "retro," but to our eye it still appears to be a roadster in the classic American idiom, so Mercedes and Porsche probably aren't losing any sleep. The tassel-loafer crowd doubtless is overjoyed at the prospect, though, so selling 25,000 to 40,000 units (the first figure being Ford's original sales forecast, the second figure an optimistically revised prediction) at something approaching forty grand per pop shouldn't be much of a stretch.

The other goodies already have been released. There's the nicely packaged, appealingly priced Explorer Sport Trac and the all-new Escape sport/utility vehicle (SUV). Escape, we predict, will sell like Popsicles in Death Valley, what with its attractive price structure, 3L DOHC V-6 and car-like dynamics. Never mind those three recalls already.

Ford's surprise hit is the Focus, which is causing more than inconsequential clamor at Honda and Toyota, challenging their vise-grip hold on the compact-car market. If Ford is smart, it'll bring in the really handsome bodyshell, the 5-door wagon, if for no other reason than to keep the lineup fresh.

The rest of Ford's '01 exertions rest mainly on twiddling and tweaking of its largely irrelevant passenger-car range; meanwhile, the Ranger's substantially restyled and powered-up. The SOHC 4.6L V-8, in both the Crown Victoria and the F-Series trucks, enjoys some extra power, for example.

Then there's the Lincoln end of the business, which essentially doesn't exist, although new Premium Automotive Group boss Wolfgang Reitzle might beg to differ. Everyone at PAG's holding their collective breaths for the 300-hp, F-150-based Lincoln Blackwood, just to see if the Navigator model of enticing customer to pay way too much applies to pickups, too. We'll know in the first half next year if 10,000 designer-truck buyers exist.

Count on the '02 Explorer - the tire controversy be damned. And beg, borrow, or steal all the Escapes the zone will give up. But apart from the Focus, is there really a Ford or Lincoln car that anybody cares about? Sorry, but the Thunderbird isn't the answer.