Ford's goal of boosting SUV fuel economy proves elusive
Ford's goal of boosting SUV fuel economy by 2005 proves elusive
By RICHARD TRUETT
Eighteen months after former CEO Jacques Nasser vowed with fanfare that Ford Motor Co. would boost the fuel economy of its sport-utility fleet 25 percent to 23 mpg by 2005, the automaker has made little progress toward that goal.
In the first year of that effort, the 2001 model year, the sales-weighted fuel economy average of its sport-utility fleet jumped 7 percent, from 18 mpg to 19.25 mpg. That leap was driven by the Ford Escape, a compact sport-utility that went on sale in September 2000 and was not included in the 18-mpg calculation.
Ford doesn't expect to see a similar jump this year, but it is sticking by its promise of a 25 percent improvement.
"Most of the actions will be toward the end of the time because it will take some technologies that are not there yet," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said.
Ford reaped positive publicity from its announcement, drawing praise from environmentalists and government officials. General Motors, feeling stung, countered that its trucks already were more fuel efficient than Ford's and said it would maintain that edge.
But all of the braggadocio about boosting sport-utility fuel economy was silenced this spring as most of the industry united to kill an effort in Congress to boost fuel economy standards by 50 percent over the next 13 years. Automakers warned that the tougher standards would force them to stop making some sport-utilities or alter them in ways that would displease consumers.
All Ford Motor Co. sport-utilities introduced since the Escape, including Mercury, Lincoln and Land Rover models, have had fuel economy ratings similar to those of the previous model.
But the same has been true for sport-utilities introduced by Ford's chief competitors, GM and the Chrysler group.
Despite the financial and management turmoil that has roiled Ford since last fall, the automaker says a budget is in place and the program is on track to meet the promise of a fleet average of 23 mpg for its sport-utilities. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. is a proponent of making his company's vehicles friendlier to the environment.
In the effort to improve sport-utility fuel economy, Ford and its competitors will rely on a combination of fuel-saving technologies and new vehicles that look like sport-utilities but make use of more efficient car platforms and powertrains, such as the upcoming Ford CrossTrainer.
Ford says 70 percent of the gains it needs will come from technology and 30 percent from new vehicles, but says the fuel economy of each sport-utility model won't increase 25 percent.
Many obstacles remain. Ford is losing money and won't bring vehicles to market that aren't profitable - including ones that use expensive fuel-saving technology.
Ford canceled a hybrid version of the high-volume Explorer last year after engineers determined that it would not produce a big enough gain in fuel economy to justify the cost of installing an electric motor.
Also, the incentive war is draining Ford's resources. Executives' top priorities are to raise quality, restore profitability and reduce costs.
The revamped 2003 Expedition is a good example of just how tough it will be for Ford to improve the fuel efficiency of its sport-utilities.
On one hand, the Expedition uses weight-saving aluminum in the engine block (4.6-liter models) and several body panels. The front fascia is more aerodynamic than the chrome bumper on the old model.
On the other hand, the Expedition has new safety and luxury features that add weight, such as rear seats that can be raised and lowered electrically, independent rear suspension for a smoother ride and a rollover protection system that deploys roof-mounted airbags when the vehicle tips over.
The 2003 two-wheel-drive Expedition weighs about 375 pounds more than the 2002 model. Fuel mileage stayed the same for most models. Had the Expedition gained the lighter panels and not the weight from the new features, Ford might have made a substantial fuel economy gain.
That still may happen, said John Krafcik, chief engineer for the Expedition. "What we did with this program is pretty much leave the engine and transmission alone," he said. "We did not operate on the patient under the hood. What you can expect are more improvements on this vehicle line - some great fuel-economy powertrain improvements."
Ford does have an arsenal of technology from which to draw. That, and some maneuvering with upcoming products, could easily put Ford over the goal line on time.
"We need to know a little more about some of their plans. But Bill Ford and Nick Scheele will make good on their promises as best as technology will allow," said Ed McLaughlin, a senior con******t for alternative power technologies with J.D. Power and Associates.
On Ford's list of options:
Diesels: At the SAE 2002 World Congress, Ford COO Nick Scheele said Ford might install a diesel engine production line in a North American plant. John Horne, president of International Truck and Engine Corp., said Ford will use a 4.5-liter V-6 diesel in a domestic light truck in 2007. International builds the Powerstroke diesel V-8 for Ford.
Hybrids: The gasoline-electric Escape HEV is on track for a late 2003 introduction; Ford is planning to sell at least 20,000 units per year. Ford's goal is for the hybrid to deliver 40 mpg in combined city/highway driving.
Fuel cells: The hydrogen-powered fuel cell and battery boosting system that will be in the 2004 Focus could be installed in a small sport-utility. Ford says there are no plans to use the fuel cell powertrain in anything but the Focus. But Honda, Toyota, Opel and other automakers are using small sport-utilities as the platform for fuel-cell development because the added room makes packaging the complex powertrain much easier.
Improved powertrains: The fuel-saving continuously variable transmission that Ford will produce with ZF Friedrichshafen AG in Ohio next year likely will be used in small sport-utilities and sport wagons such as the Ford CrossTrainer. Ford also is working on cylinder deactivation technology that cuts unneeded cylinders when a vehicle reaches cruising speed.
New vehicles: Ford is likely to classify the upcoming Fusion tall wagon and CrossTrainer as sport-utilities. The CrossTrainer sport wagon, based on a Volvo platform, is due in 2004. The Fusion is about the size of a Ford Focus.
"I think they are headed in the right direction, but the challenges coming over the next 20 months are formidable," said McLaughlin, the J.D. Power analyst. The hybrid Escape, if it delivers 40 mpg, for which Ford is striving, will be a "great leap forward," he said.
Even if Ford meets its goal of improving fuel economy 25 percent, it might lag behind GM.
GM plans to introduce cylinder deactivation and a hybrid powertrain on full-sized trucks in 2003.
The automaker also unveiled its ParadiGM gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain in January 2001. GM engineers are testing the system, which acts as an electric supercharger and is expected to yield as much as a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy. The system could be used in vehicles with transversely mounted engines, said Robert Purcell, GM's powertrain group director of planning and new business development.
Said Purcell: "The system is fully designed. The components are built and packaged. We are just getting ready to start in-vehicle development."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....