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NHTSA: Safety wins as Big 3 focus on cars
Agency chief lauds shift beyond SUVs
By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

DETROIT — The nation’s top automotive safety official — a prominent critic of rollover-prone SUVs — Tuesday praised the industry’s renewed emphasis on selling and enhancing the safety of passenger cars, which he said were the safest vehicles for Americans.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, specifically applauded Detroit automakers, who are rolling out more than 10 new passenger car models this year in an effort to reclaim lost share in the U.S. car market.

He made the comments during a tour of the North American International Auto Show. Following his viewing of the Ford display, Runge noted with approval the Dearborn automaker’s declaration that 2004 will be the “year of the car.”

“They seem to be more eager to get some other designs out there, which is encouraging,” Runge said. “People want utility. If they can give them a passenger car with utility, then it will certainly help a lot with their sales. Since we know in fact cars are the safest vehicles designed, it’s encouraging to see they are working to get those designs out into the marketplace.”

Passenger cars made up less than 46 percent of the overall U.S. market, with light trucks — SUVs, minivans and pickups — claiming more than 54 percent.

Ford plans to introduce a new generation of large sedans and crossovers — the Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle, and Mercury Montego — this year that will offer such safety features as all-wheel drive.

GM is launching a new small car called the Cobalt this year and recently started selling the Malibu mid-size sedan. It will add a longer version called Malibu Maxx this year. Also in 2004, Chrysler is debuting its large, rear-wheel drive 300 Series sedans.

Runge also pointed to several “crossover” models that combine car and SUV attributes as an encouraging development that will enhance highway safety.

(Full story here)
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