- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

DETROIT With tougher government safety regulations in the works and heightened concerns among vehicle owners, automakers are designing sport utility vehicles with more safety in mind.
The new SUVs that will appear on the market in the coming months will be part of a generation designed to address rollover problems. They also represent a shift in focus for automakers from emphasizing power, space and towing power to providing a carlike feel that put drivers more at ease.
"It's clear that many purchasers of SUVs perceive that they're buying a safe vehicle … even though evidence from the real world and tests indicate they're not as safe as people perceive," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"The problems with the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires have really brought home to the public that perhaps these vehicles were not as safe as they were cracked up to be," he said. "I think manufacturers realize sooner or later you have to have real safety, rather than the image of safety."
The two largest builders of SUVs General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will introduce new versions of their key midsize SUVs next year, and both will offer a number of safety improvements over the current models. Many of the other SUV models coming to market will also feature enhanced safety designs aimed at preventing rollover and increasing their ability to sustain crashes.
Safety "is maybe not the first reason people buy a vehicle, but it's in the top three with quality and value," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering. "People want improved safety, but not if it affects the other reasons."
After a decade of rapid growth, the market for medium and large SUVs is saturated. To keep their profits growing, automakers will try to convert car owners who have shied away from SUVs because they were too expensive, too big or simply too hard to drive.
When the SUV market took off in the late 1980s, there were few models to choose from, the most popular being the Explorer. It was built using the same frame as the Ranger pickup to save money, and it brought in billions in profits for Ford.
GM, Ford and the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG used pickups as the base for larger SUVs that could share parts with trucks to save money, yet command prices from consumers that would allow up to $15,000 in profit per vehicle.
A typical truck frame is a ladderlike structure, with two thick steel rails connected with crossbars, that the body and other parts bolt onto. Most truck frames are designed for towing or carrying heavy loads over a variety of terrain, with ride and handling a lesser concern. Four-wheel-drive pickups had added ground clearance, which raised their center of gravity and their propensity to roll over.
Documents released in the investigation of the Firestone tire recall show Ford was concerned about the stability of its Explorer in the early and mid-1990s, but chose to not make costly design changes, such as lowering the engine.
One Explorer owner took it upon himself to improve the vehicle's stability. Al Wissinger of Georgetown, Texas, began researching changes to his 1999 Explorer several weeks ago, after his wife reported nearly losing control while driving through road construction and switching from a paved lane to an unpaved one.
An IBM Corp. manager and former off-road rally racer, Mr. Wissinger bought a kit for the Explorer that lowers the vehicle more than an inch and provides a thicker anti-roll bar for the suspension, which reduces body sway. The kit is designed strictly for Explorers that never go off-road.
"After doing this suspension upgrade by virtue of lowering it … we have a good road feel on the vehicle and that gives my wife a good sense of control," he said. The company that sells the kits, Explorer Express of Richmond, Calif., said sales have jumped since the Firestone tire recall. "We used to order parts in batches of 25, and now we order batches of 150," said manager Dave Vanek.
Unlike trucks, modern cars and vans use a "unibody" structure, where the frame is built into a metal skeleton. Most of these vehicles can't handle as much towing or severe off-roading, but nearly all were designed from the beginning with ride, handling and crashworthiness in mind.
Foreign automakers keen to get into the SUV market lacked the truck parts that would give them a quick and inexpensive answer. What they did instead was to stretch the cars and vans they already built into SUVs, starting small and working up to medium-sized vehicles.
The foreign SUVs with car-based frames, such as the Honda CR-V and the Lexus RX 300, proved very popular with American buyers. The CR-V filled a market that the American automakers had overlooked, while the Lexus carved out a luxury niche that had not been recognized before.
That niche now appears to be the fastest-growing segment of the market. According to industry newsletter Ward's Automotive Reports, sales of "crossover" vehicles with car structures a category that includes everything from the RX 300 and Pontiac Aztek SUVs to a few models of all-wheel-drive station wagons are up 56.9 percent this year, to 398,000 vehicles.
With their new designs, GM and Ford are sticking with trucklike frames for new editions of their high-volume midsize models, and are using carlike frames for smaller vehicles. The Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute share a unibody frame, while the 2002 Explorer will continue to use a truck structure. GM's new Chevrolet TrailBlazer uses a truck-type frame, while the midsize Saturn SUV is a unibody design.
And with several of the new models designed from scratch, engineers say they were able to address safety concerns early in the process, rather than trying to fix an older model.
"We have taken this idea of rollover into the design of the basic vehicle," said Jim Ulrich, Saturn's vice president of engineering. "We've made the vehicle a little bit wider, and the wheelbase is a little longer. In this case a little bit of weight helps you when it's in the right place."
Ford and GM both say their new midsize SUVs will have better stability through some trick engineering to keep the ground clearance of current models.
In GM's case, a new engine was lowered so much it would have collided with the front drive shafts, so GM built a tunnel through the engine's oil pan for the shafts to pass through.
For the Explorer, Ford designed an independent rear suspension that puts the rear drive shafts through a tunnel in the frame rails. That allowed Ford to lower the rear floor seven inches.
For its SUVs, GM considered switching to a carlike structure, but stuck with a truck platform instead. It made the frame more than twice as stiff as the current model, which improves its ability to absorb bumps from the road. The seats were raised two inches, giving occupants the high position above the road that's one of the most popular reasons for buying a SUV.
Ted Robertson, chief engineer for GM's midsize trucks, said the new GMs were designed to handle moderate off-roading, but were expected to spend less than 5 percent of their lifetime driving over anything rougher than rumble strips or speed bumps.
"The new focus is on ride and handling, on creating an overall pleasant experience," he said.

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