Small victories

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One of the most interesting cars to come out of the Detroit and Los Angeles Auto Shows certainly didn’t get the most attention. Even though their readers are far more likely to buy one than a 200-mile-per-hour supercar, how many auto magazines put the Ford Focus on their covers?

The new Focus is the PZEV, a name that references the complex and exacting California auto emission standards. PZEV stands for partial zero-emission vehicle, and to qualify a car must be both a super-low emissions producer (SULEV) and have zero evaporative emissions (meaning a sealed fuel system that doesn’t produce polluting vapors). Under California law, Ford will get special credits for selling PZEV-compliant vehicles that it can use to help it meet the state’s zero-emission mandates.

Under the PZEV hood is a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 148 horsepower, which should be enough to give it plenty of pep. Focus cars sold in California later in 2003 will be PZEVs, and the model also will be sold in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts this year. This is not arbitrary: These are the states that follow California’s emission rules. But we need PZEVs in every state.

Almost lost among all the big cars and trucks is another timely introduction, that of the 2003 Saturn Ion. The Ion replaces the intro-level "S" series sedans, which date back to the early 1990s. I find the Ion much better-looking than the dated "S," with echoes of the Ford Focus and Toyota Echo.

The "Ecotech" 2.2-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine in the Ion produces 140 horsepower and is shared with the Saturn Vue SUV and the Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire. Balance shafts — often seen only in higher-priced models — give it a smoothness older Saturns lacked. This isn’t an "eco" engine on the level of the Focus PZEV, but it does produce very good fuel economy: 26 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway.

My $15,000 test Ion was pretty basic, with windup windows, but I found it easy to live with. The first thing you notice in the cabin is that the instruments are in a centrally mounted pod, which should make it easier to sell Ions in right-hand-drive countries. It should be distracting, but it isn’t. Ride, handling and braking were all acceptable. The back seat offered adequate leg- and headroom, and the trunk absorbed four large garbage bags (though the hinges intruded a bit).

My 6-year-old turned her thumbs down on the Ion because it lacked lighted vanity mirrors and a DVD player to screen Monsters Inc., but I’m more forgiving. It’s a credible small car, and domestic automakers have seldom been able to compete with the Japanese in this category. Level 1 Ions start at $11,510.


Terror cars?

Arianna Huffington deserves kudos for her well-targeted anti-SUV campaign, which was launched last week and can be viewed at www.thedetroitproject.com. The project has produced a series of hard-hitting TV commercials that point out that by guzzling Middle East gas, SUVs help prop up terror-supporting states. Some networks and independent stations have refused to run the ads, afraid of losing advertisers, no doubt.

"The idea for this project came to me while watching one of those outrageous drug war ads the Bush administration has flooded the airwaves with," Huffington says. Instead of reaching for the mute button, she decided to channel her indignation and highlight the "credible link between driving SUVs and our national security." Incidentally, the SUV craze may be running out of steam: DaimlerChrysler market research shows that owners are "increasingly unhappy with their vehicles’ poor fuel economy," reports the Wall Street Journal.