Several thousand Ford Chicago assembly workers probably issued a collective sigh of relief as they were told at the Windy City’s motor show that they will build a new SUV/car cross – the CrossTrainer – in 2004 in place of the current Taurus.

The three-row, seven-seat vehicle comes not a moment too soon for Ford as it will target the likes of Honda’s recently launched Pilot in a developing sector of the SUV market.

“The CrossTrainer combines the best attributes of a sedan and sport utility providing room for up to seven passengers and their cargo,” Ford Motor president and chief operating officerScheele said. “The Chicago Assembly Plant has a reputation as one of our highest quality, most efficient plants and when we introduce the new CrossTrainer, it also will become a benchmark in our new flexible manufacturing system.”

The ageing Taurus, still one of the best-selling cars in America thanks to high-discount fleet and rental sales, will continue to be produced in Atlanta.

Ford said the CrossTrainer is designed to meet the needs of an emerging group of car customers who want the image and advantages of a sport utility, but don#;t necessarily need the off-road and heavy-duty towing capabilities associated with sport utility vehicles though it will be available with front and all-wheel drive.

Like the new Range Rover in Ford’s Premier Automotive Group stable, and many new small SUV models like the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV, the CrossTrainer will have unitised body construction.

It will will also have a V6 engine and new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) claimed to provide exceptionally smooth operation and up to a 10 percent fuel economy improvement over a traditional powertrain.

The CrossTrainer CVT is the first North American application of a new, technologically advanced transmission developed and produced under Ford#;s joint venture with ZF.

When Chicago is reconfigured for the CrossTrainer, it will feature the first nearby automotive supplier manufacturing park in North America and a flexible body shop that allows one set of tooling to build multiple vehicle configurations to better match vehicle output with customer demand.

Ford#;s Chicago Assembly Plant first began producing cars in 1924. The plant covers more than 2.7 million square feet and employs nearly 2,500.