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Sport Trac bulks up to fight Japanese rival

Ford boosts power and size of its SUV-pickup to outmuscle Ridgeline and reclaim its market share.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

Photo:http://cmsimg.detnews.com/apps/pbcs...o=604020385&Ref=V2&Profile=1148Q=100&MaxW=500

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Ford Explorer and its offshoots, the Explorer Sport and Sport Trac, set the pace in the midsize SUV market, routinely racking up combined annual sales of 400,000 units or more, along with fat profits.

But with rivals now carving up the segment, and consumers seemingly reluctant to buy another SUV-like product, Ford is regrouping after sales of the Explorer and its offspring slumped to just under 240,000 units last year.

Even with major engineering improvements, the new Explorer, introduced last fall, has fallen well short of sales targets.

Now Ford engineers have skipped an entire product development cycle in making over the Sport Trac, a combination SUV and pickup, in a move designed to meet the challenge of its first head-to-head competitor -- the Honda Ridgeline.

The 2007 Sport Trac, which hit the market in February, has also been engineered to give existing Sport Trac owners, among the company's most enthusiastic customers, what they have been asking for: more power, more space and a more comfortable ride.

"We've been crying for an eight-cylinder engine since the beginning," said Todd Zabbin of Long Island, N.Y., a member of the enthusiast Web site mysporttrac.com, who bought his first Sport Trac in June 2003. The new model delivers that and refreshed styling that Zabbin likes.

"We have built on what the original Sport Trac was and improved it considerably," said Chris Brewer, chief nameplate engineer for the vehicle.

The Sport Trac and the Ridgeline combine the seating of a SUV with the cargo bed of a pickup truck. Ford's new vehicle offers more horsepower and towing capacity and is larger and safer than its predecessor.

The new Sport Trac is also bigger than its predecessor, offering more interior comfort and 27 percent more cargo space. To accomplish that, Ford engineers made the vehicle 5 inches longer than the previous model and 16 inches longer than the Explorer.

"But it still fits in the garage," Brewer was quick to point out, noting that this was a key design requirement.

While previous models did not fare well in all safety tests, the new Sport Trac received the highest rating for frontal offset impact safety from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It has also earned the highest rating on all government crash tests.

That is in large part because Ford's roll stability control system is standard gear on all Sport Trac models.

"What I like about the Sport Trac is that I can go to my work site, take it to the carwash and then drive it to a suit-and-tie affair," said Zabbin, who works as a construction inspector.

One of the most innovative features on the Ridgeline is a lockable trunk beneath the truck bed.

Ford counters with a fully lockable reinforced bed cover, albeit as a $595 option.

"They're a very competent product," Brewer said. But "the Sport Trac will end up holding its own."

The chief reason, he said, is that it incorporates much of the truck know-how that has made Ford the leader in full-size pickups. For example, the Sport Trac uses the same body-on-frame construction found in larger trucks, while the Ridgeline is based on the sort of unibody architecture more typical of cars.

After a slow launch, Honda sold nearly 53,000 Ridgeline units last year, enough to rob sales from Ford.

Ford expects to continue to make between 50,000 and 60,000 Sport Tracs annually.

Jim Sanfilippo, an analyst with AMCI, says there is room for the Ridgeline and Sport Trac, but the Sport Trac may have an edge because of its truck lineage.

"I'm not sure the domestic truck buyer has figured out what the Ridgeline is," said Sanfilippo.

While the original Sport Trac was based on the same platform as the Ford Ranger compact pickup, the new version is based on the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.

That will allow Ford to produce the vehicle on the same line in Louisville, Ky., where the Explorer SUV is assembled, and permit Ford to manage supply and demand more efficiently.

Even with all the improvements, competition isn't allowing Ford to charge more for the new Sport Trac. The base price is $24,940.

"It's the same price as the '05," Zabbin said. "You can't beat that."
 
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