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The Automotive News Week in Review - February 19, 2010

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
February 20, 2010

After sitting on the entry-level vehicle sidelines for what feels like an eternity, the Ford Motor Company has elected to grace Mercury dealers with their very own compact competitor. The move is designed to flesh out Mercury's lineup, which has dwindled down to just four models, including the extremely dated Mercury Grand Marquis full-size sedan which will most likely be departing showrooms within a few years.

The new Mercury will revive the Tracer name, last seen in North America in 1999 on a subcompact option that was essentially a clone of the departed Ford Escort. The new Mercury Tracer will also share most of its mechanicals with a Ford platform, but in this case it will use the same running gear and chassis that underpins the next generation Ford Focus, which hits American shores in 2011. Unlike the original Tracer, the new model will most likely be presented as a more luxurious, upscale entry-level car that maintains the sporting character and efficiency of the Ford Focus but which also offers a higher level of standard equipment and more exclusive options. Given that many of its dealers are already clamoring for a larger-than-expected number of high trim Ford Focus models for 2011, Mercury is confident that the Tracer will find an immediate audience.

The graying lineup of vehicles found under the Dodge and Chrysler banner currently includes several automobiles which have not undergone any significant updates for several years. Of these, Chrysler's small car program has suffered the most, with the 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser sold in essentially the same form it was initially offered in almost 10 years ago.

Corporate parent Fiat has been gathering momentum behind the scenes to change the face of the compact cars sold by Chrysler. Current plans call for the same platform that is used by the all-new, Europe-only Alfa Romeo Giuletta hatchback to step in within a year's time and rescue the brand's entry-level options. While the Giuletta's sexy styling is unlikely to cross the Atlantic in unaltered form, the chassis and engines offered by the vehicle will most likely be employed by the compact models destined to replace both the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Dodge Caliber in 2012. Jeep is also scheduled to benefit from this automotive technology sharing, and the platform itself is known as 'Compact Wide'.

Extensive use of aluminum and other light alloys have made the Compact Wide platform both strong and light, which should help with Chrysler's overall corporate fuel economy ratings. As many as 700,000 vehicles are planned to be sold in the United States based on this Italian technology.

Already recalled due to issues with unintended acceleration, the Toyota Tacoma has suffered yet another setback in the hearts and minds of owners thanks to a second round of call-backs that began this week. This time, a problem related to a front shaft installed in four-wheel drive editions of the 2010 Toyota Tacoma has required the company to preemptively replace the part. Toyota claims that if the component cracks while the vehicle is underway, the driveshaft could separate from the truck and potentially cause an accident. 8,000 vehicles are affected by the recall, which involves a dealer inspection and possible replacement of the offending part.

Toyota has had to idle two of its American factories due to reduced demand for its products in the wake of the scandals and negative publicity surrounding its enormous recent recalls. Plants in Kentucky will be shut down for four days, while a plant in Texas will be closed for as long as ten days in order to prevent excess inventory from building up on Toyota dealer lots.

Nissan's potential truck problems also relate to driveshafts. Some versions of the 2010 Nissan Titan and the Nissan Frontier, as well as several of its sport-utility vehicles may have been built with a faulty driveshaft yoke. The part, manufactured by the Dana Corporation, a big name in the world of differentials and driveline components does not pose a safety risk should failure occur, but Nissan is investigating the issue and may opt to replace the yoke to be on the safe side.

This type of transparency and early intervention with regards to potential recalls will most likely be the norm for at least the next six months to a year as automakers attempt to avoid a public boondoggle such as the one which has crippled Toyota.

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata mid-size sedan is already an impressive, inexpensive option for family car shoppers, due to its recent redesign. Hyundai, however, has decided to forge ahead with plans to make the vehicle even more appealing to a wider range of drivers through the inclusion of two additional drivetrains.

The first is a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine, similar to that found in the Hyundai Genesis coupe. Slated to produce in the neighborhood of 250 horsepower thanks to the installation of a turbocharger, the motor will vault the Sonata 50 ponies ahead of its base engine yet still maintain reasonable fuel mileage, estimated to be in the range of 35 miles per gallon. The second option for Hyundai Sonata buyers will be a hybrid that makes use of a four-cylinder engine, an electric motor and lithium-ion batteries to help reduce the vehicle's fuel consumption even further.

Hyundai's decision to opt out of a V-6 option for its mid-size sedan is a direct challenge in terms of efficiency and power to established competitors like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry.


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