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Striking back

From the Associated Press

U.S. automakers pretty much ceded the small-car market to the Japanese during the last decade. Now, with motorists shifting toward more gas-thrifty models and the realization that a strong compact brings buyers to its brands, Detroit is trying to make yet another comeback.

The revamped Ford Focus is making its way to showrooms. Early next year, General Motors Corp. will show a glimpse into its future small cars when it sends the Saturn Astra to dealerships.

Industry analysts say the improved offerings are much better than the chintzy small cars of the past, but Detroit still has a long way to go to unseat the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic, which together control almost 30% of the small-car market. Foreign nameplates have 76% of the U.S. small-car market.

“It’s a segment that we’ve been out of, so we need to have really good products in it,” Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally said in a recent interview.

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Mulally said his five adult children were a perfect example of Ford’s challenges in the compact market. “We missed a whole generation of Ford products,” he said. “We knew the trucks and the SUVs, No. 1 in the world, but they grew up with Civics and Accords.”

Ford and GM research shows that small-car buyers no longer will tolerate flimsy seats, cheap plastic dashboards, noisy engines and bumpy rides. They want sleek styles and performance comparable to larger cars -- all in a fuel-efficient package.

While the domestics race to put out better compacts, Toyota isn’t standing still. A new version of the top-selling Corolla is coming early next year.


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