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Ford leaves 2-door SUV unchanged

And it's that smaller Explorer that has higher death and rollover rates than the 4-door model. Ford says the Sport is completely safe.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 29, 2001



Graphic:

Striving for stability

The second-largest automaker launched a new advertising campaign this year to announce the rebirth of the popular Ford Explorer, attempting to repair the image of the recently maligned sport utility vehicle.

But what the ads don't mention is that Ford Motor Co. is only redesigning the four-door Explorer -- not the more dangerous, almost identical-looking, two-door Sport model.

Even with all the publicity about deadly SUV crashes involving Explorers and Firestone tires, virtually no mention has been made of the Explorer Sport, which has higher death and rollover rates than its big brother, the classic four-door model. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 231 deaths occur in every 1-million two-door, two-wheel drive Explorers, as much as five times higher than other SUVs including the Ford four-door version.

"The two-doors are worse," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the non-profit Center for Auto Safety. "The problem is they're making money on it so they don't really want to tell anybody."

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon says the Explorer Sport is completely safe and already underwent changes last year.

But the Explorer Sport continues to be built the same way it has been for a decade, with a higher and a more narrow trucklike foundation -- factors that auto industry experts say can lead to rollovers, particularly when a tire comes apart or after a driver swerves to avoid something in the road.

Consumer advocates and trial lawyers criticize Ford for not only failing to redesign the two-door Sport but also for deceiving consumers into believing the vehicle has been improved.

"They're misleading the public," said Ralph Patino, a Coral Gables lawyer representing victims in Sport rollover cases. "They're still selling the same inventory."

About one-quarter of the 450,000 Explorers that Ford sold last year were Sport models, Harmon said, which often include Firestone tires as standard equipment. A 2002 Sport model will be released in September with no major changes.

Though Ford, and government and consumer groups do not usually collect statistics for the Sport separately from the four-door Explorer, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did compile fatal crash information on the Sport from 1995 to 1998.

The most recent data from the group involving 1994-97 models shows that death rates increase if the vehicle has two-wheel drive, partly because they weigh less and, as a result, are less stable. Even so, the Sport's death rate is more than twice the average rate of other two-door, two-wheel-drive SUVs.

Adrian Lund, the institute's chief operating officer, said his group has been trying to spread the word for years that SUVs are prone to rollovers, and that two-door, two-wheel drive models are even worse.

"People think they are safer but as a matter of fact, you can do just as well with a car of similar mass," Lund said. "People have slowly come to grips with that."

Some characteristics that have made all Explorers unstable are their top-heavy nature, wheels that are too close together and suspension that slows braking and allows wheels to slip, auto industry and consumer experts have said. While some of these concerns have been addressed in the four-door Explorer, no significant design changes have been made in the two-door model.

Bob Anderson, a Phoenix engineer who has studied the Explorer, said the reason the two-door model is more dangerous is because it remains too high and narrow. "There is no reason why they are still building it like the older models," he said.

Harmon, the Ford spokesman, said the Sport was not redesigned this year because it underwent significant changes -- mostly in appearance -- last year. He said Ford does not mention them in the ads because ads usually only emphasize new products.

"Disclosure is not necessary on vehicles that already are safe," Harmon said.

The two-door model, which was named Sport last year, usually appeals to customers in their 20s and 30s who want a sportier vehicle, Harmon said. They typically are less-educated drivers with lower incomes who may not wear their seat belts, he said.

"It's really hard to separate the driver from the vehicle," he said.

That's why, consumer advocates say, Ford should be even more diligent in redesigning the two-door model or at least warn potential customers.

"Obviously, the two-doors are much worse," said Joan Claybrook, head of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "The advertisements for the 2002 four-door Explorers suggest they are much safer but they didn't redesign the two-doors."

Ford SUVs had rollover problems long before the Explorer and Firestone tires came into the picture. Consumer Reports criticized the Bronco II, the Explorer's predecessor, for being prone to flip. Ford settled more than 800 lawsuits involving the Bronco and overhauled it in the 1980s.

When it came time to design the Explorer, consumer and auto industry experts, such as Ditlow and Claybrook, say Ford did not make all the changes its engineers recommended, such as expanding the width between tires.

Instead, they made some changes while instructing customers to put too little air in their tires and encouraging them to fill their Explorers even though less air and more cargo makes vehicles vulnerable to rollovers.

The 2002 four-door Explorer was just redesigned to include some of those recommended features -- a wider stance, a longer wheelbase, side-impact air bags and sensors to detect rollovers. Ford officials said the decision to make changes to the Explorer, which has been in dealerships for months, was made years before the rash of accidents.

The federal agency that oversees the auto industry estimates that 203 people died and 700 more were injured in the United States in rollover accidents involving tires manufactured by Bridgestone/Firestone. But it does not track how many were in Sports.

At least one high-profile case involving a Texas woman occurred after a Firestone tire fell apart on a two-door Explorer in March 2000. Donna Bailey, 44, was left paralyzed from the neck down and reportedly settled for $20-million to $35-million from Ford and Firestone.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis shows that at least 43 people have been killed in Florida since 1997 in SUVs equipped with Firestone tires. At least two of last year's crashes involved two-door Explorers.

Patricia F. Hermanspan, 68, of Palm Bay died in April on Interstate 95 in Brevard County. Two months later, David Nisbett, 19, of Clearwater was killed on Interstate 75 near Venice on his way to a wedding with friends.

Ford and Firestone have engaged in a nasty, public feud for months about which company is responsible for scores of deadly accidents.

Though the tiremaker has released studies on the Explorer, company spokeswoman Jill Bratina said last week that Firestone -- a subsidiary of Bridgestone of Tokyo, the largest tiremaker in the world -- has not examined the two-door Explorer and declined to comment.

Together, Firestone and Ford have recalled an unprecedented 27-million tires since August. Two weeks ago, the federal government announced that wasn't enough.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it will force Firestone to expand the recall, even if it has to go to court, and has launched a preliminary investigation into the Explorer's safety. Officials have not said whether they are looking at the two-door or the four-door version.

"They've both got problems," said Orlando lawyer Rich Newsome, who is suing Ford and Firestone for deadly rollover accidents. "It's the same old thing, new day."

Recent coverage

Deadly combination: Ford, Firestone and Florida (May 20-21, 2001)

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