For much of the 1990s, Ford appeared to be running ahead of other U.S. auto makers–with the top-selling car, vastly popular sport-utility vehicles and overall good press. Then in 2000, something happened–Ford tripped. Suddenly, the No. 2 car maker found itself at the center of a controversy over the safety of its best-selling SUV, the Explorer. The next year it reported a $1 billion write-down stemming from flawed hedging strategies for the precious metal palladium. It ended last year $5.45 billion in the hole.