- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

As the beleaguered U.S. auto industry struggles to get its finances back in the black, the race is on to rebuild sagging customer bases.

The huge challenge is to convince several generations of Americans that they no longer need to turn to Europe, Japan or Korea for cars that are satisfying, long-lasting and state of the art.

Based on recent comments from design executives at Ford and DaimlerChrysler, those two automotive giants are going about their difficult tasks in entirely different ways — at least on the surface.

Peter Horbury, director of American design for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, pointed to Lincoln’s all-new entry-level Zephyr as an example of a corporate design philosophy that emphasizes simple and straightforward lines with an emphasis on the “American-ness” of the brand.

He said the understated Zephyr uses “a little less chrome, a little less complexity” than the flashier designs of some luxury cars in order to achieve an “understated, more discreet” automobile that also pays tribute to Lincoln styling of the past.

Contrast that to the words of Dennis Myles, senior manager of Dodge trucks, who just a week before emphasized bold, unique styling “designed to stand out in a crowd” as he introduced the upcoming Dodge Caliber compact sedan and Dodge Nitro midsize sport-utility vehicle to a group of automotive journalists.

The Caliber, he said, is the result of “a very intense design effort to come up with an automobile that will evoke emotions.” The Nitro, he said, is “a brawny vehicle that emphasizes ruggedness.”

That aggressive design approach should come as no surprise to an automotive buying public that has observed the mark that DaimlerChrysler has made with its Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon.

For consumers, it will mean the opportunity to make real choices when they go to buy automobiles that reflect their personal ideas of what a car should look like.

While DaimlerChrysler is aiming the Caliber at the youth market and the Nitro at SUV buyers looking for distinctive design, Lincoln is hoping the Zephyr will make the Lincoln brand attractive to car buyers who are ready to take a step up from standard family-car fare.

Company officials see potential buyers between the ages of 35 and 45 with incomes in the $95,000 to $100,000 range. They envision a customer base that is 60 percent male and 40 percent female. Advertising will be directed to media outlets they believe are catering to the interests of that demographic.

The front-wheel-drive Zephyr, with a starting price of $29,660, is based on the Mazda 6 platform and will be built on the same assembly line in Hermosillo, Mexico, as its nearly identical siblings, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.

An afternoon drive from New York City to Norwalk, Conn., and back showed the Zephyr to be a competent midsize sedan with a semi-sporty suspension, accurate steering and capable braking. Its three-liter, 221-horsepower V-6 engine appeared to be a bit underpowered, but the six-speed automatic transmission moved effortlessly among the gears to keep it operating in the meaty part of its power curve.



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