October 5th, 2004
Between Bouts of Honesty, Ford Hedges its Bets for
One hybrid, one (maybe two?) throwback(s); one crossover, one
traditional sedan, and one holdout to retain fleet share
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
One hybrid... Ford's
'05 Escape makes Ford
one of just two companies building full hybrids, and currently
the only one with a hybrid SUV
2003 Ford Mustang
2004 Ford Shelby Cobra Concept
One (maybe two?) all-new
throwback (s)... Ford's Mustang snorts and looks like it was
There's also the
Shelby GR-1 Concept,
replacing the earlier Shelby Cobra Concept
in Design Head J Mays' power trilogy. Like the Cobra, the GR-1 is GT-based,
giving it a good chance of being built
Ford Five Hundred
One crossover and one
2005 model year come the FWD/ AWD, P2-based
Ford Five Hundred
Ford wanted both a new sedan, and a car-based SUV (in addition to the Escape)
which leant more to the emerging crossover market.
Taurus wagon - effectively replaced by Freestyle - will be
Both Ford's car sales and its resale values should get a boost from this
new pair. Ford hopes to move about 125,000 Five Hundreds per year
... and one holdout to
retain market share. '00 Taurus
The Chicago assembly plant will build the Five Hundred, Montego, and
Freestyle, while the Atlanta plant continues with the Taurus.
Ford is cagey about calling the Five Hundred a
but they're not being too honest here.
The truth is that Ford hopes the Five Hundred will give Americans more
of the space they want until the smaller Fusion
comes along next year.
Meanwhile, Taurus will soon exist largely for fleet sales
which would otherwise hurt the Five Hundred's status.
Many analysts and shareholders might breathe a sigh of relief at the new
strategy, but they're not being honest, either. There could have been a
very different end to this story (see article:
'Farewell to the
Still building America's
best-selling vehicle... and last year's new
F-150 is joined by a
new '05 F-Series Super
Duty, boasting a
towing capacity of 17,000 lbs.
The long shadow of the
straightforward, often brutally honest Henry Ford still appears over Dearborn,
as if to remind the company both of its place in life, and that there is glory
in that mandate.
Ford and honest transportation
were once synonymous, a universally-praised relationship before Henry
uncharacteristically lost the plot, developed
a fixation on his Model T,
and refused to change it - even in the face of Alfred Sloan's rapidly-developing
design studios (courtesy of the famed Harley Earl).
As Ford - the last of the Big Three
to build concepts - became drawn into the world of ever more outlandish dream
cars and extravagant yearly design changes, Toyota studied its production lines
and gradually built similarly mainstream cars with better quality, and yet more of the
options that the mainstream market wanted.
The first gas crisis hit in 1973,
and the second in 1979. You know the rest of the story.
Ford and racing were also
Few road cars have exemplified the
desire to go as fast as possible, and damn the practical considerations, as did
Nearly forty years ago, one Carroll
Shelby persuaded Ford to drop a 427 V8 into the British
creating a legend that, as Jason Barlow wrote for Top Gear, March 2004,
has "mythic status (which)
seems to gather momentum with each passing year."
Recently, however, Ford has found
itself investing billions in others' brands. It is decidedly not present on the
other end of the Atlantic, then, quite in the way Shelby had intended.
Ford has forced its
to commit hara-kiri even while Ford affiliate Mazda fields the most dynamically
enthusiastic car currently in the Camcord segment;
donated a Lincoln platform for
the Jaguar S-Type,
only to remove Lincoln from Jaguar status
'Lincoln Languishes as PAG Plunders'),
and plugged Volvo without a
thought as to Mercury.
The class-leading flag at Ford is
currently flown only by the Focus
(whose U.S. version will inexplicably not be replaced by the second-generation
due now in Europe), and by the F-150
- a truck.
Retrospection is in order, and 2005 will see Ford attempting a
return to its roots. Indeed, there is a certain honesty
at Ford of late, perhaps fitting of its working-class beginnings. It is supported visually by Design Head J Mays' favoring of
simpler themes in his designs, and of throwback, Living Legend cars that
hark back to simpler times.
Mind you, one has to be careful
about describing Ford as honest. Most seriously, there are currently
rumblings about the closure of the Wixom plant in Michigan for political
reasons. We'll return to this later. More humorously, the company last
year lied about its towing capacity in order to secure a lead over Nissan's
(as we described, somewhat
tongue-in-cheek, in Bear in Review
Speaking of which, Ford of course
continues to utterly dominate the full-size pickup segment. The
has gone from strength to strength, September having been the thirteenth month
of year-on-year improvement for America's best-selling vehicle.
Yet Ford has chosen to launch a new
F-Series Super Duty
despite the excellent performance of the previous model. Ford's Senior Sales
Analyst George Pipas told us recently that it was
"the mark of a leader"
to continue to innovate.
Well done, guys. Certainly,
is best-in-class, if not quite our type of vehicle.
Growingly, it is hardly the type of
vehicle that the progressives (opinion leaders, in industry-speak) aspire
to, either. Despite a stellar performance by
F-150, Ford sales in September were down
4% for the month, which tended to follow year-to-date performance. More to the point, market share has
dropped from 20.5% at this time last year, to 19% in September '04.
In the wake of the Firestone
debacle, and of CEO Bill Ford's public and renewed commitment to both his
company's core business and to its impact on the environment, Ford has had to
re-evaluate its contribution to a market that its genially simple badge has
always purported to serve: the mainstream. Honest transportation.
may be America's best-selling vehicle for twenty-five years running, but Ford
knows full well that this is a double-edged sword. As The Detroit News
put it recently, "thereís
the comparatively poor fuel economy of Fordís U.S. fleet, a favorite target of
environmental activists who canít be bothered with most industry nuance.
"To wit, a company that produces
some 900,000 full-size pickups every year and hundreds of thousands of SUVs will
have lower fleet fuel economy than a foreign automaker ramping up truck and SUV
production." ('Bill Ford:
Time to sell more cars,' The Detroit News, September 29th,
hedging against the Explorer and Escape
In the face of somewhat misguided
(but vocal) opposition to its best-sellers, then, Ford has been re-evaluating
its place in life. It helps, of course, that the Japanese have finally caught-on
to the SUV craze. They missed the minivan movement in the '80s, and the truck
trend in the '90s, but their first large pickup trucks and mammoth SUVs are
starting to appear.
Why would it surprise anyone,
therefore, that the company whose Ford
Explorer - together with
Jeep's evergreen Cherokee
- sparked the Sport Utility Vehicle craze fifteen years ago now translates those
simple, rugged cues to a new car-based crossover, named
Freestyle? The traditional American sport
utility vehicle, as Ford sees it, may be changing - and Ford will be the first
American company to capitalize... hedging its bets, of course, against the
provides two further hedging attempts of its own:
and the much-ballyhooed Escape Hybrid.
clone that looks surprisingly fresh, has been launched and gives Lincoln/
Mercury dealers an entry-level SUV. Mercury may be in a state of limbo, but the
dealer organizational structure keeps it alive as a viable alternative for
customers sticker-shocked by Lincoln's price tags;
finally acknowledges this. Mariner will get its own
hybrid version in 2006.
Expect to see a Mercury version of
Crossover, too - likely to be shown at next January's 2005 North American
International Auto Show in Detroit.
hedging against the traditional SUV
is convinced that hybrids will remain the territory of the true believers unless
they can be brought to cars that the mainstream wants to drive. So Ford is hedging its bets: the
is the hybrid, not the
Not for Ford the enclosed trappings of
Toyota's Prius and
Honda's Civic Hybrid;
purports to offer better gas mileage (36mph city, 31mpg hwy) while requiring
virtually no compromises of the driver - save for $3,000 over the 4x2 model, and
another $1,000 for the 4x4.
One can almost picture old Henry -
appearing much like Buick's Harley Earl - in the background of an
commercial talking about building what the people want to drive.
Ford and Toyota are currently the
only two companies in the world that make full hybrids. Undeniably, Ford
has beat the Toyota/ Lexus hybrid SUV duo to the punch with a vehicle that can
be bought now.
Speaking of Toyota, and of honesty,
it is high time that the media acknowledge that mistakes were made in their
initial reporting of Ford's hybrid efforts.
"All the technology and the systems
in the Escape hybrid were designed and developed by Ford. Full stop,"
Mary Ann Wright, Director of Ford Sustainable Mobility Technologies & Hybrid
Programs, told Autoline Detroit's John McElroy.
"It's true that Toyota came to us
several years ago and offered us 350 of their patents,"
"Our patent attorneys and my
engineers went through it and at the end of the day we said that there's
21 of these patents that are close enough to what we're doing that we'll agree
to license them so that there are no questions or accusations."
Toyota has recently confirmed this
side of the story - not before
"they left us hanging for a while,"
noted Wright, not without bristling a
August 29th, 2004).
About the furthest thing from the
technology and peripheral responsibility of the
is the all-new 2005 Mustang,
yet the famous icon will sit alongside it in Ford showrooms.
(perhaps two) Throwback(s)
Every trade has its heroes - its
icons - but few are as reverent toward theirs as is the automotive industry. The romance wrapped-up in the
notion of personal mobility is one reason, and the variety of cultures, brands,
and egos that make up its products - and that attempt to win hearts and minds
their way of thinking - is another...
... but no one element is perhaps
as responsible for the idolatry granted to this industry's luminaries as the
desire to race.
Some leagues improve the
breed more than others, which have often been too far removed to do so. The
slack has simply been taken up by PR departments. Once in a while, though,
there comes a car which needs no slack; simultaneously both medium and message,
and an embodiment of Marshall McLuhan's theory (revered in many circles of media
study) that "the medium
is the message."
Ford hopes the new
- after the GT,
the remaining two pieces of what J Mays has called his power trilogy -
fall into this category.
A man whose name is synonymous with
racing across the United States, Shelby - like his product counterpart Bob Lutz
- has worked with all three of the Detroit manufacturers. Both Shelby and Lutz
are known for their passion for automobiles; both have been responsible for
exploits which have only grown more stunning with passing years, and neither
could be accused of not speaking their mind. When their paths crossed in 1987,
we got the tumultuous hissing tantrum known as the
Dodge Viper, an embodiment of
traditional, American, good ol' boy horsepower in a body that gave Dodge's horns
a potency most brand managers can only dream of. Lutz owns one, along with a Cobra
replica. That alone speaks volumes about why the
needed to be resurrected.
team, Chris Theodore has gone on to become head of Ford's Advanced Product
Creation center. In January 2003, the task of designing a resurrected
was given to Richard Hutting, whose models were brought to life with
parts and massaged by Shelby.
For Shelby, the short development
time - which undercuts the Ford GT's
15 months by two thirds - was ideal.
"It took five or six weeks to
engineer it, another five or six to build it,"
muses Theodore. "We drove
the bare chassis soon after. It was like a 600bhp go-kart."
"We had a ball. Carroll still likes
his donuts. You should see him go"
(Top Gear, March 2004).
In the charmingly optimistic manner
reminiscent of Ferrari, Ford estimated a 267mph top speed, which of course will
drop when aerodynamic considerations have been factored. The 6.4-liter V10 puts
out 604bhp @ 6,750rpm, 501lb-ft @ 5,500rpm, and was said to propel the
aluminum spaceframe from 0-60mph in under 4 seconds.
Shown at Detroit 2004, the
Shelby Cobra Concept
was too rakish for the many who remembered how the original's arches softly
enveloped its wheels. Undeterred, Ford recently showed
Shelby GR-1 Concept
- this one, mechanically much the same as the
will probably be built.
Not as quickly as the
however, which begins Job One as we write this. We first saw the new
at Detroit 2003. J Mays'
had it all: heritage, aggression, and - by and large - the popular vote to see
Ford put it into production.
That front fascia had so much
character: the simple, round lights couched in organic frames; that evocative
grille, and the lines across the fog lamps which began a styling theme carried
throughout the car (see the line across the door down the flanks, and the cut in
The aggressive, inward-sloping
front fascia was (and is) a distinctive touch. It was last seen on older BMWs
and Yugos, we think, and we don't mean that in a
bad way - today, it comes across as an aggressive, if aerodynamically questionable, styling
quirk in a sea of blobular imitators.
The jewel-like taillights were
evocative, and perfect on red concept convertible displayed at the show.
The critics argued that, in terms
of design, it did not advance the breed, and relied too heavily on past cues. Damn the critics. We, for one,
think it is almost fitting that what will undoubtedly be the most capable
yet returns visually to its roots - one might almost perceive that the Mustang,
forty years on, is repeating its glorious history but with more sophistication
than was possible in 1965.
Consider it a rebirth, if you will. So the
will be launched in November, looking much as it did in 1965, and likely making
Lee Iacocca (who has yet to remark on the car, as far as we know) proud.
The resemblance does not stop
there; as in '65, there is reason to want the base models again. The base
is much less of an embarrassment than the old 3.8-liter model was, Ford having
finally admitted that all too many will opt for the V6 convertible (when it
inevitably appears next year) over a V8 GT
Ford Design Head J Mays retains an
obsession with simple shapes: fixed-radii circles and waterlines parallel to the
ground, a taste we suspect he honed on the
Audi TT and
VW New Beetle.
Some might suggest it has been taken too far, what with the almost Germanic,
minor differentiation between the GT
and base Mustang,
and the peripherally low-effort flanks of the new car.
We're not enamored of the spoiler;
it looks tacked-on (because it is), and the concept did it much better.
That said, there is an undeniable
honesty to the Mustang
- and, indeed, to the new Five Hundred
sedan, which is similarly simple in form and detailing.
It is a pity that the two are not related, as they would have been at the
launch forty years ago.
Even as the new pony looks and
snorts much like the first one did, its chassis comes to you courtesy not of the
Ford mainstream chassis that once underpinned such cars, but of the DEW98
platform used by the upmarket Lincoln LS
and Jaguar S-Type.
Traditional Sedan (and a clone),
and one Holdout
Perhaps the simple fact that Ford would hardly again put a
chassis of one of its mainstreamers today illustrates how difficult a time those mainstreamers have had since the Mustang
Mind you, Ford once tried to replace the
with the front-wheel-drive Probe.
Suffice to say that purists threatened to burn the very building where the
decision was conceived.
Ford is taking another crack at the
mainstreamer market, this time with both front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.
Traditional American sedans have
power, presence, and space.
manages about half of those qualifications - indeed, driving it, one might wish
for a little of the
muscle. The 203bhp Duratec is a
familiar unit, and for the first time gets a 6-speed transmission to work with -
along with a CVT. Both are geared for fuel economy rather than power, and 30mpg
on the highway is a real possibility with a light foot. Ford calls it a
"smart powertrain combination"
because of the fuel economy gain; we say it's a convenient way of avoiding the
horsepower race until an upcoming engine and transmission family is ready. Five
Hundred's automatic is currently sourced from Japanese supplier Aisin-Warner,
which is likely a hard pill to swallow for what purports to be a traditional
American sedan. American automatic 'boxes have long been best-in-class.
We would not have minded a little
of the Mustang's presence, either. Much like with the
(see article: 'Hunfight
at the OK Corral'),
we see a very rigid, German interpretation of the large American sedan here -
albeit without the interest of the
brash detailing. Nonetheless, it is clean and
ultimately more homogenous than the Japanese competition. Things fit,
unlike with, say, Nissan's Maxima
(which also takes the
roof, but mates it to one of the most disjointed bodies ever conceived - see
'What were they thinking?')
additional dress-up over this basic honesty thus gives it a certain mass-market
cachet, hardly the stuff of brand-building dreams - but until someone comes up with a
better way to manage the brand, a dressed-up-Ford is what Mercury is.
That aside, this car has two cards
to play: a chassis that is more capable than expected, and
more space than anything in its class.
We get optional 18-inch Pirelli
tires - and we like the way the car handles on them. A touch on the heavy side
for its power, certainly, but surefooted and predictable with even some
throttle-steerability toward the limit. The ride remains pleasant, and the car
feels more neutral than it first appears it might be.
There's an all-wheel-drive model,
too, offering a layout still relatively new to the mainstream segment. This one is a Haldex-clutch system straight from
Volvo, easily-integrated into what it is a Volvo P2 platform (as used in
is 3 inches longer than a
and a foot shorter than a
As you might imagine, the
packaging has been substantially improved upon. The
actually treats its rear passengers better, and offers a 21 cubic foot trunk to
boot. Even the passenger seat folds flat - a unique touch in this segment. Up front, seating is four inches higher than a typical sedan's,
and so Ford will be playing on what it refers to as Command Seating.
Again, to be totally honest, others
have been seating drivers higher for a while - if more in smaller cars (such as
Ford's own Focus)
than in the Five Hundred's
National advertising for the
Hundred will start in about
ten days. The keyword for the
Five Hundred, Freestyle,
is low volume. Well, lower volume. Ford's fleet mix has declined from 18% in
July to 16.9% in September, so you see where the strategy is going. The idea, of course, is to produce higher
residuals and thus better lease deals. Automotive Lease Guide has already
resale value as 48% after three years, and 50% for the
These figures, which banks will use
to finance your new Ford, compare extremely favorably with the
paltry 30%, and are just a few points lower than the
We promised you a look at the
potential Wixom plant closing, and the movement of its
and Town Car
lines to Atlanta. None have made more insightful comments than Autoline
Detroit's John McElroy.
Thus we close with a political
"Automakers need to hold on to as much political clout as possible... any time
an automaker has a plant in a state, it can usually count on the support of two
senators, at least one congressman, and a governor,"
suggested McElroy recently.
With Michigan support generally
reliable, Ford may well feel it can afford to move south and shore-up a base
To which we must suggest that
Toyota (that name seems to come up awfully frequently) has quietly been building
its own base in Michigan. Ford would be well-advised to place its political bets
as carefully as it has its products'.