Live from the Ford Dearborn Development Center: 2008 model preview

It's that time of year when all the carmakers want to show off their latest wares for the upcoming model year and Ford invited the media out to their Dearborn Development Center to try out some of what's new for 2008. Before we got a chance to actually hop in the vehicles and find out what's what, we had to sit through a couple of speeches.

First up was Group Vice President, North America Marketing, Sales and Service Cisco Codina with a rundown on Ford's marketing efforts. In spite of all Ford's struggles of late there are a few bright spots. The company's crossovers are flourishing as well as proliferating with the sales of the redesigned Escape up thirteen percent in June and the Edge recently moving into the top spot in it's category ahead of the Toyota Highlander. According to Cisco, the new Taurus has over 501 improvements compared to the Five Hundred. Five hundred of them came from the engineers with one coming from marketing in the form of a new name. So far response to the new Taurus seems positive with Automotive Leasing Group estimating that the Taurus will retain 49% of it's value after three years, up from a figure in the mid thirties for the old model.

Read on after the jump for the rest of what happened in Dearborn.

Next up was Derrick Kuzak, the Group Vice President, Global Product Development for Ford. Derrick gave us an outline of some of the product changes for 2008. Since Ford appears to be trailing behind the competition, particularly GM, in getting exciting new product to market, over the next couple of years they're pulling ahead some of the features which might normally be saved for furure models. For example, the F-150 is getting the new mid-box storage system in the final year of it's product cycle before a redesign for 2009. The F-150s are also getting an integrated cargo management system in the bed and a backup assist system that displays the output of a rear camera in the rearview mirror. Another feature that will be showing up in eleven models for 2008 and rolled out the rest of the lineup in the next couple of years is Ford Sync, which was also shown in Detroit.

Moving forward, Derrick said that Ford is speeding up its product development process and focusing on areas like better interior quality, reduced noise, and better overall quality. An example of the attention to detail is the notches on the upper surface of the new Taurus mirror housing. They provide an aesthetic design detail, but they also provide an aerodynamic improvement and reduce the wind noise from the mirror by four percent. Lots of efficiency improvements are coming as well. Ford will be putting their vehicles on a major diet after some recent vehicles have become decidedly porky, particularly the Edge.

Major powertrain improvements are also coming in the next couple of years with Twin-Force technology playing a major part, especially when mated to Powershift gearboxes. Powershift is Ford's name for dual clutch gearboxes like the Volkswagen DSG. Twin-Force first appeared in January under the hood of the Lincoln MKR concept with the twin turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5L V-6. Ford will be applying direct injection and turbos to a whole range of four and six-cylinder engines between now and 2011 to improve efficiency and make the output of smaller gas and flex-fuel engines match that of larger engines. Again this is the same pattern VW has taken with their TSI engines that can achieve up to 200hp form a 1.4L four cylinder. Kuzak says that Ford can approach the efficiency of diesels with the setup at a much lower cost, since they don't need the fancy exhaust after-treatment systems.

After Derrick was done, it was time to drive. Ford had four driving areas setup to evaluate different aspects of the vehicles. First up was an autocross course set up on the vehicle dynamics area. A mixed group of FWD and AWD Fusions, Milans and an MKZ were on hand for this event. Nearby were some F-150s to demonstrate the backup assist system.

After that it was off to the high-speed loop where a wider variety of cars and trucks, including the Lariat Limited and Harley-Davidson F-150s, were lined up alongside coupe and convertible Shelby GT Mustangs and both 2007 and 2008 Escapes and Mariners. For safety reasons, we were limited to 65mph on the loop. The older Escapes and Mariners were provided so that we could evaluate the improvements on the new models back to back.

Over at the steering and handling track, the F-150s were replaced by Edges and MKXs joining the V-6 and GT Mustangs and Escape and Mariner Hybrids. This track allowed us to experience a Sunday drive in the country with a variety of twists, turns and elevation changes. As you might expect, the topless Mustang was clearly the preferred ride for this event, although none of the vehicles embarrassed themselves. Of course that should be expected since they were designed and developed here.

Finally we hit the straightaway, claimed to be the straightest, flattest roadway in North America. Here Ford had the Taurus, Taurus X and Sable alongside their ancestors the Five Hundred, Montego and Freestyle. Ford also had some technology demonstrations for their Sync and Direct Fuel System. You might notice that the Ford Focus was not mentioned here. That's because there were none available to drive. Two 2008 Focuses were on static display with one being used for Sync demos so we'll have to wait for driving impressions. We'll have full reports and videos on how the individual vehicles performed over the next couple of days, so stay tuned.

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