From the beginning, the Explorer has been a winner for Ford.
Introduced March 15, 1990, as a 1991 model, the Explorer quickly became one of the most popular sport-utility vehicles sold in America and a cash cow for the Ford Motor Co.
But in the weeks since Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced a recall of 6.5 million tires -- most of which were used as original equipment on Ford Explorers and pickup trucks -- customers have begun to turn against both companies, surveys show.
So the stakes are enormous for Ford President Jacques Nasser, who was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to try to convince Congress that the Explorer's design did not contribute to scores of accidents linked to Firestone tires, which have resulted in more than 100 deaths in the United States and abroad.
A new survey of 2,800 prospective SUV buyers by CNW Marketing/Research of Bandon, Ore., shows that Ford's approval rating for its handling of the tire recall dropped from 70.3 percent on Aug. 15 to 17 percent by Aug. 31.
The survey also showed the number of people looking at new vehicles in Ford dealer showrooms dropped dramatically after the recall. Before the recall, floor traffic in Ford showrooms was 12 percent higher than the industry average, largely because of the Explorer and other light trucks. By Aug. 25, that traffic was running six to nine points below the average.
And an estimated 27.6 percent of prospective SUV shoppers who ranked the Explorer first or second on their list before Aug. 9 had moved it to third or fourth by the end of the month.
All this makes Ford officials very nervous. Because of the Explorer, by far the nation's top-selling SUV, Ford dominates the highly lucrative U.S. light-truck market, in which the profit on the sale of a single vehicle averages $10,000.
Moreover, much of the company's light-truck future depends on the success of Explorer derivatives, such as the new Explorer Sport Trac and the Explorer Sport. And Ford already has begun beating the drums for its "all new" 2002 Explorer, to go into production early next year.
Ford created the Explorer by grafting a large station-wagon body onto the frame of a compact four-wheel-drive Ranger pickup truck -- essentially gilding a frog to create the new standard for the nation's auto buyers. It wasn't the first SUV, but the Explorer, with its car-like qualities, did help redefine the market.
A decade later, light trucks -- which include sport-utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks -- account for half of U.S. passenger-vehicle production. And Ford has begun the 21st century with a U.S. market share in the light-truck category greater than that of all the Japanese automakers combined and 10 points ahead of General Motors Corp., its nearest U.S. competitor.
When the Explorer was introduced, Thomas J. Wagner, then general manager of the Ford Division of Ford Motor Co., said the new truck was "blurring the traditional distinctions between cars and trucks."
"Explorer looks more trucklike than carlike, yet it offers some of the same comforts you would expect to find in cars," Wagner said.
By making a truck out of a car, Ford didn't have to worry about stricter federal safety and fuel-efficiency standards for cars. Under federal law, the overall fleet of passenger cars produced by a manufacturer must average 27.5 miles per gallon. The average for trucks is 20.7 miles per gallon. And for years, SUVs and minivans weren't required to have such safety features as side-impact barriers, front-seat head restraints or driver-side air bags.
In the years since the Explorer was introduced, Ford and other automakers have seen SUV profit margins soar, forming the financial foundation of today's American auto industry.
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