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Enough SUVs? But Wait! There's More!


SUV, SUV, Won't You Buy My SUV? It's a song most of the world's car companies are singing, and the volume is going to get louder. By the middle of the next decade, or Y2K.005, Ford and its Mercury and Mazda brands will all have their own new mini-sport-utility vehicles--the Ford might even work as an on-board spare car for drivers of the Dearborn Dirigible, the company's super-sized 2000 Excursion SUV--and Nissan should be well into the next iteration of the Xterra not-quite-mini-SUV that hits dealer showrooms in June.

But wait! That's not all! Isuzu should have a few more SUV-based steeds in its all-truck stable; there's one on the way from South Korea's Hyundai; the soon-to-come Porsche-VW and BMW sport-utilities will be old hat in the market in five years. And speaking of hats, best hang on to 'em now--there may well be a super-premium SUV by Volkswagen-owned Bentley. The question doesn't seem to be when will the SUV craze end, but rather when will the family sedan officially be declared a dinosaur?

Blasphemy, Thy Name Is . . . Honda? Those who believe that the ground-shaking, bone-jarring, V-8-powered dragsters that regularly rip up the asphalt at NHRA events are what drag-racing is all about should cover their eyes now. The venerable National Hot Rod Assn. is teaming with the upstart Import Drag Racing Circuit to co-sponsor two major racing events next year devoted to nitrous-snorting, front-wheel-drive four-bangers and V-6s. It will be the old guard embracing the new as Mazdas, Hondas, Mitsubishis, Nissans and others of that ilk (Ford's Probe and Contour and the Dodge-Plymouth Neon twins qualify as well) take to the drag strip to strut their stuff.

And it is, indeed, some stuff. Top import drag machines--once dismissed as "rice rockets"--regularly run the quarter-mile in eight-second times. "Import drag racing is a natural extension for the NHRA," says Tom Compton, the association's general manager. "It mirrors in many ways the sport's roots" in the backyard hot rod movement of the 1950s and '60s. The first IDRC/NHRA event will be the West Coast Nationals at the Fairplex in Pomona on June 12-13. Then, in November, the IDRC/NHRA International Finals at Pomona will feature entries from Japan, Australia and North America.

Too Good Not to Share: The wags at Autoweek wondered in a recent issue if there was any truth to the rumor that Lincoln was working on its own upscale version of the gigantic Ford Excursion. To be called . . . the Lincoln Town House?

There May Be a Trend Here: Used to be that whenever a new automotive quality list came out, it was dominated by Japanese car makers. But Japan has been sliding a bit in the styling arena as European and U.S. designs have perked up. And U.S. car makers, after having their oil pans cleaned by the opposition for more years than is comfortable to relate, have finally learned the value of good service, reliable powertrains and quality fit and finish. One victory doesn't make a winning streak, but neither is it something to ignore.

In Strategic Vision's annual "total-quality awards" announced this week, cars and trucks from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors narrowly edged competitors from Japan and Europe to take seven of the 18 top slots (winners in 16 categories, plus two ties). Japanese makes captured six bests, European cars five. One other item of note: There wasn't a Mercedes-Benz in the crowd.

Dan Gorrell, vice president of the San Diego market research firm, says Strategic Vision's quality awards differ from others because they rate not only the number of flaws buyers find but their emotional responses to their new vehicles as well. He calls it "the passion quotient." The awards are based on statistical analyses of surveys completed by 33,000 people who bought new 1999 models during October and November.

And the Winners: Listed by category and vehicle points, with 1,000 the maximum possible:

Small car: Volkswagen Golf (839).

Compact: Pontiac Grand Am (870).

Mid-size: Volkswagen Passat (879).

Large car: Chrysler LHS (890).

Near-luxury: BMW 3-Series (906).

Luxury: Volvo S80 (922).

Convertible (under $30,000): Chrysler Sebring (831).

Small specialty (under $30,000): Volkswagen New Beetle (878).

Mid-size specialty: Honda Accord coupe (877), Toyota Camry Solara coupe (876; granted a tie because of the narrow point difference).

Minivan: Honda Odyssey (866).

Small SUV: Subaru Forester (821).

Mid-size SUV: Toyota 4Runner (858).

Large SUV: Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition (tie, 849).

Luxury SUV: Lexus LX 470 (918).

Compact pickup: Dodge Dakota (830).

Full-size pickup: Chevrolet Silverado (859).

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