Later this month, the world's second-largest automaker will roll out a bird feeder on steroids, doubling as a two-ton billboard on a trailer that will be towed from one city to the next, then parked. 

If all goes as planned, ravenous birds will swoop in and devour the seed, slowly exposing to passers-by a message introducing the 2002 Explorer pictured on the "birdboard" rising 10 feet tall. 

It underscores the multimedia lengths Ford plans in touting its next-generation Explorer. The model now faces special challenges in a tight market and a segment crowded with more than 50 SUV models, with as many as 80 expected in the next couple years. 

All the while, Ford bids to move past last summer's Firestone tire recall, which it says dented sales and the image of the Explorer. Even so, the Explorer ended 2000 as the nation's best-selling SUV for the 11th straight year. 

"The Explorer launch is pretty key to Ford," said Al Giombetti, Ford's group marketing manager for SUVs and trucks. "We are in a battle, and we need to be at the best of our game at all times." 

"The idea," he added, "is to keep the Explorer business where it was last year," when Ford sold a record 445,157 of the high-margin SUVs despite bad publicity over the Firestone tire flap. 

Analysts say Ford's challenges could come from many fronts, including General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet TrailBlazer, packing a more powerful engine than the Explorer. GM will throw a trio of SUVs at the Explorer this year, marking the first time the two auto giants have squared off with all-new designs of mid-sized SUVs in such short order. 

The Explorer's reign also might be tested by Toyota Motor Corp. (news - web sites)'s Highlander, as well as by the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango from DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler unit. 

While expecting the retooled Explorer to do fine, Nextrend's Wes Brown says "it's a tough market for it to be coming into this go-round." 

"Ford is going to have good marketing earlier on, much more than they ever envisioned," he said. "There's an incredible level of competition, and this product launch will be critical for the Explorer." 

To Autodata Corp.'s Ron Pinelli, the latest Explorers and their chief rivals enter an industry in transition, with crossover vehicles melding attributes of passenger cars and SUVs "where the market's headed." 

"There was a time when sport utilities were king of the hill," he said. "But the crossovers are really the new, hot items out there." 

The new SUVs, Pinelli believes, "are not going to get the wow factor." 

To dispel that, Ford will call upon the birds as part of its "No Boundaries" marketing blitz, to include TV and magazine ads, and personalized, direct-mail pitches to Explorer owners. Another mobile billboard will sport mechanically moving hands that sweep aside bushes for a view of the new Explorer. 

Ford also plans a series of outdoor events to introduce people to rock climbing, mountain biking and off-road driving, plus be a major player in a Fox TV network reality show featuring Ford SUVs, including the Explorer. 

Ford won't divulge costs of the campaign for the 2002 Explorers. It formally hit the market last week at a base price of $24,620, similar to the old model and in line with the TrailBlazer's starting price of just under $26,000. 

"It's a very important launch," Burnham Securities analyst David Healy said of the new Explorer. "For sure, it would be better for them if it went well." 

The new Explorer arrives after months of Ford scouring for any defects in the wake of recent, recall-troubled launches of Ford's Focus subcompact and small SUV, the Escape. 

Ford also is trying to move past last August's Firestone recall of 6.5 million tires, many installed as original equipment on Explorers. Those tires have been linked to 174 U.S. deaths and more than 700 injuries, federal safety officials say. 

Last month, Ford said personal-injury claims against it over the tire recall totaled at least $590 million as of Dec. 31. That figure does not take into account settlements Ford aggressively has reached in the recall's wake, the $500 million in recall-related lost production and the untold expense of defending itself against the lawsuits. 

Intent on mending the Explorer's image, Ford has built into the 2002 model such safety features as air cushions along the windows that inflate in rollovers to prevent occupants from being ejected. The updated Explorers also are 21/2 inches wider with wheelbases 2 inches longer than 2001 models, presumably lessening rollover potential. 

The new Explorers also have an independent rear suspension for a less truck-like ride, and a third row of seats.