Consumer Car News: 4/15/02

April 15, 2002

SUMMER GAS COULD BE THIRD MOST EXPENSIVE
The EPA says you’ll pay an average of $1.46 per gallon of regular unleaded this summer. Reuters reports the Environmental Protection Agency thinks gas will run that high, which is about eight cents less than last summer’s peak but the third highest ever, because of record demand. Barring extreme situations, the EPA doesn’t expect prices to run above last summer’s, but says it could happen if production slows for physical or political reasons.

WILL GM CUT SAFETY EQUIPMENT?
One of GM’s latest ideas for saving money is cutting back on some standard safety equipment, the AP reports. The news service says the company’s product team, led by product czar Bob Lutz, may make anti-lock brakes optional on more models; currently, it’s standard on GM vehicles except for Saturns and the Cavalier/Sunfire twins. Safety gear like airbags ad seatbelt pretensioners would be safe, other sources report.
GM Boosting Build in Mich., Ont. by Joseph Szczesny (4/8/2002)

BLACKWOOD GETS A BRIEF REPRIEVE
The Lincoln Blackwood is getting a reprieve, of sorts. Company sources are challenging reports, earlier in the week here on TCC and in industry papers, that there’d be no 2003 version of the high-end hybrid SUV/pickup. In fact, an ’03 model will go into production in August and will continue through next April, Lincoln product chief Al Kammerer tells TheCarConnection. He also stresses that original plans for the vehicle called for only a limited production run: “We never figured Blackwood would be made forever.” What’s not disputed is the glitzy crossover’s lack of success. Lincoln sold only 397 Blackwoods through the end of March, about a third of those produced. The problem? A “botched launch,” Kammerer concedes, with quality issues delaying production, even as a costly ad campaign got underway. Lincoln is planning another media blitz to accompany the 2003 model rollout.

CADDY GETS REALLY DIGITAL
Cadillac says it will be the first car brand to offer XM Satellite radio across its entire lineup. For the 2003 model year, GM’s luxury brand will offer the digital satellite radio service as an option; in 2004, the XLR roadster and SRX crossover wagon will offer it as well. “Cadillac has always been at the forefront of GM technology introductions,” said Cadillac General Manager Mark R. LaNeve. “We are excited to be the first automotive division to offer our customers this outstanding new technology in all our vehicles.”

FORD BACK IN ZERO-PERCENT GAME
Zero-percent financing will continue at Ford until May 1, the company said last week. The interest-free loans are available on most of the company’s cars and trucks on 36-month loans; rebates of between $500 and $2500 can be had in lieu of the financing. For the first time, Ford has put rebates on the Escape sport-ute, a $500 spiff. The Ford Thunderbird and the limited-run SVT vehicles are excluded from the cheap deals.

FORD ASKS RETIREES TO PAY FOR HEALTHCARE
The Detroit Free Press reports that Ford will begin charging its retirees a monthly premium for healthcare. The more than 50,000 white-collar retirees will have to pay for coverage effective June 1 as well as higher co-pays for prescriptions. The retirees have an option of no monthly premium and other combinations; union workers are covered under their own plans. Similar payments have been in effect at General Motors and Chrysler for years.

UAW SAYS AMERICAN ISN’T JAG, VOLVO
Though Ford owns a portfolio of British brands, the UAW says they’re not American cars — and has begun sticking flyers on the windshields of Jaguars, Land Rovers, Volvos and even Ford Focuses made in Mexico owned by Ford employees. The letters, the Detroit News says, come from the office of UAW Vice-President Ron Gettelfinger, who is likely the union’s next president. Figures show sales of Ford’s foreign-made cars in the Detroit metro area are booming as employees are able to purchase them at a discount.

FORD LOSES $6.5 MILLION JUDGEMENT
The Supreme Court in Oklahoma says a $5 million verdict against the Ford Motor Company will stand because the company built and sold an “unreasonably dangerous vehicle,'' Reuters reports. The judgement was awarded to the parents of a 19-year-old from Tecumseh, Okla., who incurred permanent brain damage in June 1997 when his 1988 Ford Ranger skidded into a roadside creek. The trial jury felt a seatbelt failure led to his impairment, while Ford insists the man’s injuries came from no failure of the vehicle. With penalties and interest, the award Ford must pay now stands at $6.5 million.

AIRBAG COMPLAINTS ON THE RISE
USA Today says a data scan finds airbag complaints are rising, even as more complex airbags are on the way to market. The complaints have risen from less than 200 in 1990, to more than 3000 last year and more than 800 thus far in 2002. Not all of the complaints were mechanical — some, the paper reports, were as simple as owners being unable to find the horn buttons — but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which obtained the data studied, expects that complaints will only rise as “smart” airbags come to market before September 2003. The NHTSA has issued 112 airbag-related recalls since 1990, affecting some 6.2 million cars and trucks.

ATLANTA GETTING SMART-A
The microcompact Smart car from DaimlerChrysler is coming to the U.S. — not as a Mercedes-Benz model, but later this year as a commuter vehicle for Atlanta’s MARTA metro transportation system. Some 2,500 Smarts will be assembled without conventional engines in the Hambach, France, plant and shipped to a finishing plant in Hinesville, Ga., for electrification. MARTA stops will be equipped with charging stations in a replica of a program used by the 40 stations of the Swiss railroads.
The Smart is five feet shorter and a foot narrower than the VW Beetle. After a rocky launch period the Smart has caught on in Europe as a neat coupe to navigate and park on the continent’s narrow streets. Priced from $7,500, nearly 200,000 Smarts were sold last year by Mercedes dealers throughout Europe; a four-door body style will be built for the ’04 model year in the DC-Mitsubishi plant in Born, Netherlands. The Smart’s appearance in Atlanta could fan the microcompact segment flame on the heels of the current debut of BMW’s Mini Cooper car in the U.S. Nissan unveiled its March mini in Japan last month and its U.S. dealers have been advised a federalized version could be available as soon as 2003. The Iraq oil cutoff announced April 8 adds to interest in offering high-economy cars. — Mac Gordon

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