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Ford Unveils Japanese-Designed Minivan : Autos: The joint venture awith Nissan may threaten Chrysler’s lock on the lucrative market.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just two weeks before Ford Motor Co.'s chairman travels to Japan with President Bush to press for trade relief for the U.S. auto industry, the No. 2 auto maker showed off its newest model here: a minivan engineered and designed by Japanese auto maker Nissan.

The vehicle, unveiled Tuesday, will be built starting in the spring at Ford’s Avon Lake plant near Cleveland and sold by Nissan as the Quest and by Ford as the Mercury Villager. It will be the first real competition for Chrysler in the lucrative minivan market.

And it represents the latest in a series of joint projects between U.S. and Japanese auto makers that has drawn the two sides into close working relationships even as they fight an increasingly bloody battle over trade policy.

Although the new Mercury Villager minivan is Ford’s first venture with Nissan, the U.S. company is no stranger to working with a Japanese auto maker; it already builds Mazda’s Navajo, a Ford Explorer clone, in Louisville, Ky. And it gets its Ford Probe assembled at Mazda’s Flat Rock, Mich., plant.

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General Motors and Toyota build vehicles together in Fremont, Calif. Until recently, Chrysler Corp. operated a Bloomington, Ill., plant with Mitsubishi.

Such tangled ventures make for a murkier picture of the relationships between U.S. and Japanese auto makers than is often apparent in Detroit’s trade policy rhetoric.

But Lee Miskowski, general manager of Lincoln-Mercury, says he sees no contradiction between joint ventures and the company’s stand on Japanese trade issues--such as its charge that Mazda, Toyota and Mitsubishi are “dumping” minivans in the United States by pricing them below what they cost to build.

“We need to continue taking any business opportunities we can get, including partnerships,” he said.

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Joint ventures have had mixed reviews. But analysts say it makes sense to let politics take a back seat to profits, especially in the latest Ford-Nissan collaboration.

“Minivans are a growth segment,” said William Pochiluk, president of Autofact, a consulting firm in Westchester, Pa. “It’s a good segment to be in, and it’s a very solid vehicle. It’ll be a winner.”

Chrysler introduced the minivan in 1983. Sales of the car-like trucks rocketed from 30,000 annually to 840,000 in 1990. Chrysler models accounted for nearly half of minivan sales in the first eleven months of this year--close to 30% of the No. 3 auto maker’s total sales. Ford estimates that the number of minivans sold in the United States will top 1 million by 1993.

Despite his optimistic forecast, Miskowski admitted that it will be tough to drum up customers for a type of vehicle not usually associated with Ford’s upscale Lincoln-Mercury division. At a likely price in the $20,000 range, Lincoln-Mercury hopes to tap an older market than the typical minivan buyer.

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The Quest and the Villager will be sold by companies with vastly different images: Lincoln-Mercury sells luxury cars to older customers. Nissan’s clientele are younger and import-oriented. If both succeed, they may avoid directly competing against each other.

Nissan executives say they expect sales of the two versions to divide along traditional import-versus-domestic lines.


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