Not enough zoom zoom

There's more zoom in the ads than there is in the '01 Mazda Miata sports car. The well-known ragtop was billed as reaching 155 hp. It turns out that the actual horsepower is 142, a miscalculation of 8%. To make it up to buyers, Mazda North American Operations is offering to buy back up to 3,500 Miatas for the full purchase price, or owners can opt for a $500 MasterCard debit card plus free factory maintenance for the length of the car's warranty. Ford Motor Co. owns 33% of the Japanese carmaker. Ford has had some experience in eating crow: In December 1999 it provided free upgrades of the ‘99 Mustang Cobra when it became known that about 8,000 of them lacked the engine power the company advertised.

Ford reinvents itself yet again

Ford 2000 is history. Ford Motor Co. has realigned its North American Product Development organization and broken away from former chairman Alex Trotman's plan that created five teams of engineers, designers and researchers to develop specific global products. This new plan, implemented in February, promotes development of product portfolios with designs based on family, lifestyle, tough trucks, outfitter products, and Lincoln and Mercury products. It means Taurus is not part of the large car group, but with the family group with Windstar and Focus, while Thunderbird and Mustang hang together in the lifestyle group, and outfitter products are predominantly sport/utility vehicles. The idea is to focus engineering and design expertise more squarely on the customer.

Can GM SUVs catch Ford's Explorer?

With three all-new midsize sport/utility vehicles reaching market — Chevy's Trailblazer, GMC's Envoy and Oldsmobile's Bravada — can General Motors Corp. catch Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer, re-engineered for 2002? Tom Wallace, vehicle line executive responsible for the GM trio, is startled by the question. “It depends on how you count them,” he says, adding GM expects to pick up market share. Explorer's lead may be insurmountable. Despite a blast of unfavorable publicity surrounding last year's Firestone tire recall, Explorer sales grew by more than 20,000 units in 2000, reaching 445,157. Toss in Mercury Mountaineer's 46,547 sales, and Ford came in just under the half-million mark in the midsize SUV race. Direct competitor Chevrolet Blazer posted half the sales Explorer did. Even with GMC Jimmy and Olds Bravada tossed in, GM crosses the line with 337,000.

Germans in Brazil eyeing Japanese?

DaimlerChrysler AG appears poised to assemble Mitsubishi products in South America. DaimlerChrysler Director for Latin America Ben van Schaik, tells Ward's the company is studying additional products for the underutilized Juiz de Fora plant in Brazil that assembles Mercedes-Benz A-Class and C-Class. And he seeks a new product for the two-year-old Campo Largo plant slated to close this month when it ceases building the Dodge Dakota pickup. That decision is not expected until May, but the workforce could be kept intact in the interim. The new product will not be a Dodge or Chrysler, Mr. van Schaik says, but could stem from the partnership with Mitsubishi. As for Juiz de Fora, a German newspaper reports it will produce a version of the Z car, a global small car off the Smart platform in conjunction with Mitsubishi. Mr. van Schaik won't confirm. He also says no decision yet on where the next generation A-Class (to be sold in North America) will be built.

New Lexus convertible already a sellout

Two weeks before it went on sale March 15, the new Lexus SC 430 was a virtual sellout with a year's wait for delivery. Dennis Clements, general manager of the Lexus Div., says first-year sales should hit 12,000, leveling at 10,000 annually after that. About 80% will be sold in the U.S, the rest in Japan (where it is built) and Europe. The 2+2 hardtop convertible starts at $58,455. A fully loaded SC 430 tops out at $61,295. Mr. Clements says the only way to increase price is to go further upscale, but don't look for a super-premium luxury car to compete with the Mercedes Maybach. There is no such plan, even though Lexus says it has a platform and Toyota has 12-cyl. engines to do it.

Cayenne volume to keep Porsche independent

The new ‘03 Cayenne sport/utility vehicle will provide the volume to ensure Porsche AG's independence, says Porsche Cars of North America Inc. President Frederick J. Schwab. Porsche isn't for sale, lease, or rent, he says. “Cayenne makes sense because Porsche needs to stay independent and would lose its uniqueness if purchased by one of the giants. To stay independent we must be bigger and increase sales, and all market studies show we can do that through building and selling an SUV.” The all-wheel-drive will come with a V-6 or naturally aspirated or twin-turbocharged V-8 engine and automatic transmission. European versions will get a manual transmission. The V-6 Cayenne is targeted to start below $65,000. “Cayenne isn't the end for Porsche. We have thoughts about what another vehicle could be, but no decision has been made yet.”

DCC to build B-vans until June 2003

DaimlerChrysler Corp. breathes an extra six months of life into its fullsize van plant in Windsor, Ont. The Pillette Road Truck Assembly Plant, which produces Ram vans and wagons on the company's B-van platform, was to cease production and close its doors by Dec. 31, 2002, as part of the parent company's restructuring program. But Bob Renaud, DaimlerChrysler Canada vice president-government and public affairs, says the plant will remain in operation until early summer 2003 — the traditional end of the model year. The extension was approved because the company believes there remains a market for the vehicle — albeit a soft one, given that sales were down 9.2% for the first two months of this year. Mr. Renaud says the move is “independent” of other decisions regarding Pillette, which will close without new product. So far, no such product has been identified. The C$1.5 billion plant expansion remains shelved and the plant is reduced to a one-shift operation.

Plant idled after Legionnaires' Disease afflicts workers

Ford Motor Co. resumed production at its Cleveland Casting Plant where four workers were stricken with Legionnaires' Disease, two fatally. As the automaker took steps to disinfect the plant, a multi-agency investigation was searching for the bacterium's source. Legionnaires' Disease is a form of pneumonia contracted by inhaling mist from contaminated water. Ford idled its Brook Park, OH, plant March 14 after three cases were confirmed. Opened in 1952, it employs more than 2,500 workers who make blocks and other engine components. Engine production in Windsor, Ont., was affected, and the Cleveland shutdown was a factor in rescheduling down time planned for its Wayne, MI, plant where Ford builds the Expedition and Navigator.

Ford encourages Six-Sigma partners

Ford Motor Co. wants its suppliers to do the Six-Sigma quality improvement dance with them, but has stopped short of making it a requirement to do business, says Anne Stevens, vice president - North America assembly operations. “We only started in the fourth quarter of '99,” she says, but already 10 suppliers have signed the dance card. Six-Sigma's goal is to identify defects that creep in during variations in process and find ways to reduce their frequency to 3.4 occurrences per 1 million opportunities. Ford has undertaken 1,900 projects and completed “a few hundred.” The early focus is on fixes to improve customer satisfaction, followed by cost savings through measures such as waste reduction.

50 and still researching strong

The Ford Research Laboratory, at 50, is taking a holistic approach to safety as it enters the next half-century, says Priya Prasad, Ford Motor Co.'s manager of safety research and development. Research must be done to analyze what happens before and after a crash, not just during. To that end, Ford is studying driver distraction in a $10 million simulator. The Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) measures the ability to drive while using cellular telephones, navigation systems and other electronic equipment. Ford also is trying to predict what injuries to expect from certain types of crashes to help doctors triage. The lab houses more than 100 engineers and scientists from more than 50 countries working on advanced automotive technology.

GM aims to be 1st fuel cell vehicle mass producer

General Motors Corp. wants to be the industry's first volume producer of fuel cell-powered vehicles. “Our goal is to be the first company to sell 1 million fuel cell electric vehicles,” says Byron McCormick, co-director of GM's Global Alternate Propulsion Center, Honeoye Falls, NY. “By the end of this decade we want to have a significant market presence using gasoline as a (source of hydrogen for fuel cells).” GM's fuel cell strategy is to take the automobile out of the environmental debate and aim for sustainable clean mobility with hydrogen as the preferred fuel. Until the bugs are worked out of storage and distribution technologies, GM has selected gasoline as an interim fuel. Mr. McCormick won't say exactly what year GM would reach its 1 million-unit goal, but he says using gasoline should help promote retail sales. GM is developing new fuel processors to obtain hydrogen from gasoline that are lighter and more efficient than older versions and able to start much more quickly. The Gen III processor, one of the latest GM developments, will be put in a Chevrolet S-10 pickup for testing early next year. More than 60 suppliers/technical partners are involved.