A long-time critic of the auto industry says consumer demands for safer vehicles have created such significant improvements that "you no longer have to be afraid to buy an American car."

Gillis commented in releasing the 11th edition of "The Car Book," his annual guide to the merits and faults of the new automobile models.For the first time in decades U.S. automakers, responding to consumer demands for safer cars and the inroads made by the Japanese auto industry, are making safety a focus of advertising rather than style and power, Gillis said.

"We are seeing, for the first time, car companies competing head to head in the area of safety."

Gillis said that competition is reflected in the manufacturing process with more emphasis on building stronger, safer auto frames and the wider availability of air bags.

Gillis' book, first issued in 1981 for the government but soon thereafter published as a private venture, is based on government data.

It rates cars in the areas of crash safety, repair costs, fuel economy, warranties, insurance costs, resale value and complaint history.