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Ford to launch new "crossover" SUV

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DETROIT, Feb 6 Reuters reports that Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday said it plans to produce a new ``crossover,'' or car-based, sport utility vehicle, boosting competition in one of the auto industry's fastest-growing segments.

The new mid-size vehicle, dubbed the Ford CrossTrainer, will be built at Ford's Chicago assembly plant starting in 2004, Nick Scheele, Ford's president and chief operating officer, said in a statement prepared for delivery to Chicago area employees of the world's No. 2 automaker.

Crossover vehicles combine the most popular attributes of an SUV, including ample passenger space and rugged outdoor looks, with the smooth ride and handling of a car. Designed for strictly ``urban cowboys,'' most lack the off-road and heavy-towing capabilities of a traditional SUV.

``The Ford CrossTrainer combines the best attributes of a sedan and sport utility providing room for up to seven passengers and their cargo,'' Scheele said. The vehicle will come equipped with a V6 engine, all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission intended to provide seamless gear shifts.

``This new car is part of a new segment that is one of the major growth opportunities in the coming years,'' said Scheele.

CrossTrainer production in Chicago will replace production there of the aging Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans. Production of the Taurus, one of the best-selling cars in the United States, will continue at Ford's Atlanta assembly plant.

Ford is a relative late-comer to the crossover segment, which grew by nearly 90 percent in the United States last year. Japanese automakers have a commanding 55 percent market share of the segment.

Honda Motor Co. is preparing to come out later this year with the Pilot, a lower-budget version of its mid-size and highly popular Acura MDX. Japan's largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp., launched the successful Highlander crossover last year.

General Motor's Corp., the world's No. 1 automaker, already has at least three crossover utility-type vehicles on sale with more on the way, and the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler AG plans to launch the Pacifica, its own crossover, next year.

Ford has seen its dominance of the SUV segment reduced amid mounting competition in the past year. So far, its only model that falls under the vague definition of a crossover is the Ford Escape small SUV. Ford's other SUV models are built on a truck-like chassis, while the Escape uses a car-type frame. Its Volvo luxury division has one crossover model on sale and will begin selling a larger model later this year.

Scheele and other senior executives have called product development a crucial part of Ford's strategy to return to profitability after last year's net loss of $5.45 billion, its first full-year loss since 1992.

Ford is committed to spending $7 billion a year on product. In addition to the CrossTrainer, it plans to introduce a revamped version of its top-selling F-Series pickup truck in about 1-1/2 years.

Ford shares were up 7 cents, at $14.11, in the early afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday, well below their 52-week high of $31.42.

Industry analysts said the CrossTrainer appeared to be a step in the right direction for Ford, but some were unimpressed by word of a new vehicle from a company plagued with a recent history of quality problems and botched product launches.

``I don't think that any individual vehicle is going to resurrect Ford's fortunes,'' said Nicholas Lobaccaro, an industry analyst at Lehman Bros.

``It's not going to be a panacea,'' he said. ``It will help them if they execute it right.''