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Lincoln Upbeat, Diesel Redux and Other Auto Items

by Bob Hagin

August 13, 2001

In the auto business, nary a month goes by without a half-dozen or so newsworthy happenings taking place. These are the most interesting items that came across our desk during the past four weeks:

LINCOLN UPSCALE - Growing old gracefully is an attribute for movie stars, politicians and, in general, most people. But it's a worrisome thing if you're an auto maker and your customer base is past the point of simply getting gray and becomes white-maned and collecting Social Security. Both of America's premiere brands, Cadillac and Lincoln, have achieved this unenviable status and the powers-that-be at Ford want to change this. Lincoln has been around for a very long time (80 years, to be exact) and it's gone from producing American classics to being just another upper-mid-priced brand for old-timers to buy. But the company wants to regain its former (pre-world War II) luster and gray-at-the- temples youthfulness that was typified by its original Continental coupes of the '40s and '50s. Lincoln's Jaguar S-Type clone, the LS sedan, is a start, and is aimed at the Asian and European luxury sports sedans. And for the first time ever, the Lincoln name is attached to a pair of fancy trucks, the Navigator SUV and the posh Blackwood pickup. Now Lincoln wants its dealership locations to go upscale with high-class and sumptuous granite-and-sandstone architecture that will also have separate-but-equal (!) entrances for "lesser" Ford brands like Mercury and Mazda.

VW DIESEL SALES - Advocates of the smelly but economical diesel engine will be happy to learn that the present spiraling cost of gasoline has spawned a resurgence of interest in that compression- ignition unit. Volkswagen of America has sold out its entire supply of its various models that are powered by its turbocharged TDI engine. Sales of diesel-powered VWs dropped a bit a few months ago but it was only because dealers ran out of cars to sell. Most of us well remember the onus that was put on diesel-powered cars in the gas-crunch '70s when General Motors jumped on the diesel bandwagon with its 350 CID V8 engine. They often failed soon after the Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets that used them were delivered. Diesel-powered VW Rabbits of the same era fared better mechanically but were slow, smoked and were difficult to follow at a distance of less than 50 yards without the use of a gas mask.

MITSUBISHI DROPS NAME - I used to think that the East German car company that sold its Wartburg sedans and convertibles here in the '50s and '60s had to have sick comedian as its marketing director with the possible exception of the executive in charge of the Iso Rivolta. Apparently Mitsubishi has been doing some semantic research and came to the conclusion that its name is too long and has too many vowels to be "catchy" in this image-is-all society. Henceforth (at least starting next year) the multi-voweled name will not be seen on the noses and tails of its products. The only vehicle brand identification will be the Mitsubishi three-corned three-diamond logo and even that will change. As long as I can remember, the diamonds have been bright red but starting in 2002, the will be chrome. The last car that I know of that changed just the color of its logo was Rolls-Royce. In 1933, Sir Henry Royce died and the color of the R-R emblem was changed from red to black. I hope the logo color change at Mitsubishi wasn't caused by an executive coup of someone at the top.

CHEVY GOES REAR WHEEL DRIVE - Not long ago we noted that Chrysler Corp. is planning to drop its once-heralded but now out-of-style credo to produce nothing but front-wheel drive passenger cars and go back to the now-trendy rear-wheel-drive (rwd) mode. Now Chevrolet is falling into lock-step and announced it too will soon be producing a couple of models with the motor in front and drive wheels at the back. The last Chevy sedans to be so designed were the Caprice Classic the hot-rod Impala SS, both of which were V8-powered. But such upscale brands as Mercedes, BMW, Lincoln, Jaguar, etc. pot power to the back wheels and it's very "in" to do so. The only fly in the Chevrolet rwd ointment is to develop a relatively low-buck four-wheel stability control system, The one that works for the rwd Cadillac Catera would work but it's too rich for Chevrolet's financial diet.

CHEVROLET/SUZUKI FWD "CUTE-UTE" SUV - It's no secret that the Suzuki Vitara and its clone, the Chevrolet Tracker, have not been setting the SUV world on fire. They're truck-based (separate frame, solid rear axle, etc.) which means that their short wheelbases and stiff suspensions make for a rough ride. But that will change soon (2004) and a joint venture will opt for the "cute-ute" genre in which a soft-riding sedan platform is the basis for a front-drive, ersatz off-roader that will look the part but be more at home on wet or snowy city streets. Honda, Ford and Toyota have them and their sales successes have been eyed with envy. The likely candidate for a cloning is the Saturn VUE SUV which is based on the Saturn L-Series "big" car platform.

So much for the current chapter of "Life In The Fast Lane," the ongoing saga of the car business. Stay tune for the next one.