Ford fights high CVT costs; production efficiency examined, but basic design remains
The 2005 Ford Five Hundred is available with the ZF-engineered CVT and Aisin's six-speed automatic. The CVT is standard on the Ford Freestyle
RICK KRANZ | Automotive News
Lower production volume and the strong euro are pushing Ford Motor Co. to chop as much as 25 percent from the cost of its continuously variable transmissions engineered by German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen.
Gerhard Wagner, group vice president of the car transmission division at ZF, says Ford started cost cuts, including seeking non-European suppliers, after the companies' joint venture ended this year.
"I think you have to keep in mind that the exchange rate from euros to U.S. dollars has dramatically changed during the last year," Wagner says.
The euro has risen by nearly 60 percent against the dollar since 2000, increasing the cost of European goods here. Ford's plans for the transmission are down 75 percent from the Jac Nasser era, when it wanted to sell the Ohio-built CVT to other automakers.
But while Ford has been shopping for non-European suppliers, the design of the CVT will not change.
Ford spokeswoman Tammera Hallums says the automaker is concentrating on production efficiencies at its Batavia, Ohio, CVT plant. She would not comment on changes made to the CVT. Ford and ZF did not reveal names of suppliers to the project.
Ford and ZF Industries, a unit of ZF Friedrichshafen AG, formed a joint venture in 1999. The partners planned to produce 1 million CVTs.
But Ford purchased ZF Industries' stake in the venture in February and capped production at 250,000.
One version of the CVT is standard on the automaker's front-drive, mid-sized Ford Freestyle sport wagon. It is also available on the 2005 Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans.
A smaller CVT is used in the Ford Focus C-Max, a five-passenger, fwd minivan sold in Europe. Both transmissions are assembled in the Ohio plant.
The Five Hundred, Freestyle and Montego are the automaker's first North American vehicles equipped with a CVT.
A CVT uses a belt or chain to connect two pulleys that slide on shafts and vary the gear ratio based on engine speed.
Generally, a CVT offers fuel economy equal to a manual transmission because it keeps engine speed at its most efficient point. That differs from an automatic transmission, which varies engine speed significantly as it moves through the gears. A CVT also provides more torque at low RPMs than a four-speed automatic.
In the joint venture, ZF Industries provided the technology and helped Ford set up the Batavia plant. When ZF Industries sold its stake to Ford last February, it cited the considerably lower production outlook.
"Based on cost discussions, the plan changed," he says.
Wagner says the business climate also has changed considerably since the two companies formed the joint venture.
"Today, priority number one is costs. Priority number two is costs. Priority number 3 is costs," he says.
"If you go back six years, the focus at Ford was not only cost, cost, cost. I think they also had a focus to invest more in technology."
Wagner says the two companies will continue to work together. He says the relationship remains good.
But the companies will work together mainly to develop technology rather than on production.
Ford's Premier Automotive Group uses the supplier's six-speed automatic transmissions in such vehicles as the Jaguar XJ and S-Type.
Ford replaced the Lincoln Navigator's four-speed automatic transmission with a ZF transmission for the 2005 model year.
Wagner says ZF's six-speed transmission was selected to meet fuel economy, performance and customer satisfaction targets. Wagner called the Lincoln deal a long-term agreement.
Another Ford vehicle is likely to get the six-speed automatic.
Wagner points to the Navigator's transmission volume as a good sales target for other ZF applications. In 2003, Lincoln sold 38,742 Navigators.
There is an opportunity for other niche applications in the United States, Wagner says. "But I don't think we will ever get big volume, hundreds of thousands."