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US:Savvy Ford leaders are bringing better product to market

Savvy Ford leaders are bringing better product to market

John McCormick
The Detroit News

History teaches that in warfare, the victorious army is usually the one that makes the fewest blunders. It's not unreasonable to apply this premise to the auto industry, where mistakes often run neck and neck with smart decisions.

As far as Detroit's Big Two go, the balance of gaffes to intelligent moves appears to have shifted in favor of the latter. Specifically, this applies in two critical areas; management (the generals) and product (the weapons).

In General Motors' case, the right people have been in place for some time and the results of their efforts - much improved products with much better quality - has been arriving, initially from Cadillac and bit by bit, from other brands in the stable.

With Ford, the personnel situation had been shaky, but is righting itself and the superior product is beginning to appear as well; cars like the Ford Fusion and its siblings. Mustang aside, Ford vehicles rightly have been accused of blandness over the last few years. That, however, stands to change as a very strong team of designers, led by highly qualified Peter Horbury, has been assembled to put visual excitement back into the North American line-up.

On the product development side, Ford's North American cars and trucks are in the hands of Paul Mascarenas (like Horbury, a British 'transplant'). His savvy influenceis already being demonstrated in the Fusion, which is better than any mid-sized sedan Detroit has produced in years.

This year Ford has a mixed bag of new products to launch; redesigned, longer version of the Expedition full size SUV, a take-no-prisoners sports car in the form of the 475 hp Shelby GT500, plus the important Edge crossover vehicle.

Kicking off the stream of newcomers is the Explorer Sport Trac. Though the Explorer has fallen well down the annual sales charts from its 400,000 unit heydays of the 1990s, it remains an important player for Ford in its truck line-up. For whatever reasons - most likely the explosion of competitive mid-size SUV models and buyers concern over fuel consumption - Explorer sales have not rebounded, despite a comprehensive make-over last year. This is rough justice for Ford, because the Explorer and its Mercury and Lincoln siblings have dramatically improved their driving characteristics and most notably, their overall refinement levels.

All of these improvements and more are evident in the 2007 Sport Trac, which uses Explorer underpinnings in place of its predecessor's Ranger pick-up platform. Traditionally this model has done well in attracting a sizeable niche audience within the SUV market. And in some ways, the Sport Trac's combination of four-door cabin and pick-up style cargo bed inspired its most recent competitor, the Honda Ridgeline. But while the car platform-based Ridgeline could initially claim a much more refined driving experience than the previous generation Sport Trac, this is not the case with the 2007 version. The Ford has smoothed out its previous truck-like driving qualities to the point that it has become the benchmark for body-on-frame vehicles in the class. To compete with Ridgeline, Sport Trac has even added a storage compartment under its longer cargo bed floor, a feature that debuted with considerable fanfare in the Honda. The new Sport Trac also offers for the first time a V-8 engine option, answering a strong demand from the vehicle's owner body. With a starting price of $24,940, Ford expects the Sport Trac to pull in some 5000 buyers per month, on par with Honda's Ridgeline sales last year.

By itself, the Sport Trac will not make a big difference to Ford's bottom line, but its excellence in many areas, from power to refinement to safety features, bodes well for the direction of other new models to come. And, as Detroit's Big Two automakers continue their never-ending war for the hearts and wallets of American buyers, well designed products like the Sport Trac show that the right 'weapons' are at hand.

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.....
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