Ford Fixes Powertrains – But Faces Platform Challenges

Ford is betting big on batteries. During a news conference at its Rawsonville assembly plant, the automaker updated plans to put at least five electric vehicles into production over the next couple years, including both battery-electric and plug-in hybrid models.

But there's a yin to the yang of Ford's push into green technology, as it's demonstrating with the return of the new 5.0-liter Mustang. At 412 horsepower, the eight-banger is pushing into what was, not all that long ago, supercar territory. Perhaps even more impressive is the 305 horsepower of the Mustang's new 3.7-liter V6, especially when you consider it's rated at over 30 mpg in highway driving.

Add the array of EcoBoost powertrains – from the little inline-four up to the V6 going into next year's F-150 – and it's not out of line to say Ford is in the midst of a serious powertrain renaissance.

That's all the more significant when you consider where the automaker was, just a few years ago. Says one senior technical executive, "We were building crap." Long-time auto analyst Maryann Keller was only a bit more polite – even though she sounded almost like Chicken Little, endlessly warning that the sky would fall if Ford didn't start upgrading its engine line-up.

The old Mustang V6 was a great example why: it was slow, not very fuel efficient and sounded like it needed an industrial-size asthma inhaler whenever you tried to goose it into action.

Is Ford's new powertrain line-up the best in the industry? Probably not. It's hard to beat the offerings of makers like Audi, BMW, Nissan and Honda. But Ford is finally competitive, and here we don't mean that as faint praise. By the end of 2011, when all its new engine offerings are on the road, Ford will have little to apologize for.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


On the powertrain side, anyway. The question is whether it can keep up in its platform offerings. And there, we find increasing reason to worry, despite all that's in the pipeline, from the little Fiesta to the next-generation Explorer.

Bill Ford's back-to-basics policy, honed by CEO Alan Mulally into the One Ford strategy, makes plenty of sense. The U.S. automaker simply didn't deliver on its once-promising plan to turn an assortment of global luxury brands into a major profit center. So, considering the hefty drain on cash and human resources, it made sense to sell off Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover. Volvo is a different matter, especially in light of the decision to pare back Ford's stake in Mazda.

A sizable share of the underlying platforms have been developed either by or in close cooperation with Volvo and Mazda
If you look at the current Ford line-up, a sizable share of the underlying platforms have been developed either by or in close cooperation with Volvo and Mazda, notably Fiesta, Focus and C-Max. Considering Ford's plan to switch emphasis from light trucks to passenger cars, having these platforms in place becomes even more important.

But what happens going forward? True, the Dearborn automaker has been amazingly adept at keeping old platforms not just alive but competitive. Witness the Mustang, whose underlying chassis dates back decades. But will the C1 platform of the Volvo S40 and Ford Focus prove so resilient once we fast-forward a product lifecycle or two?

That's a question being asked quite a bit among both my media colleagues and industry analysts, these days. And there are more than a few skeptics that feel Ford could wind up in a bind a few years from now when it no longer has the engineering expertise housed in Hiroshima and Gothenberg to fall back on, says long-time analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting.

For his part, not surprisingly, Ford's President of the Americas, Mark Fields, is more upbeat. Ford of Europe, he points out, was heavily involved in the development of the Fiesta platform, "and we're building on that knowledge."

True, Fields acknowledges, Ford can no longer count on having access to the skill sets of Mazda and Volvo, but he insists there's a positive side, "a wonderful degree of freedom that will let Ford engineers focus on the Ford DNA," rather than having to accept a compromise design that satisfies the needs of three different makers appealing to very different customers.

There are bigger models that the maker also needs to update or outright replace
Whether Ford can live up to this promise will start to be seen more clearly by mid-decade as the maker rolls out a wide range of additional products sharing its small car platforms. But there are bigger models that the maker also needs to update or outright replace. The Taurus, for one. And what about those big, rear-drive models that Ford now seems intent on walking away from?

There's no question that Ford Motor Co. is in a much better place than it was just a few years ago. But there are no goal posts in this business, and even the new powertrains will have to continue to be updated to deal with ever-tougher emissions and fuel economy standards. But the real test will be ensuring that they have not just competitive but world class vehicles to power.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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