2003 NY Auto Show Preview by Marty Padgett (4/14/2003)
Rounding out America’s contribution to the Year of Auto Shows.
Ford is heading back to the Futura.
The Detroit automaker is reviving a name that first appeared on a Lincoln show car nearly a half century ago, this time applying it to a new mid-size sedan that will serve as the much-needed replacement for the aging Taurus four-door.
Those who follow the auto show circuit might get a sense of déjà vu viewing the new Ford Futura, as it is, with only a few subtle tweaks, a production version of the automaker’s 427 concept vehicle. Underneath the muscular sheet metal, the new sedan shares its basic platform with the popular mid-size Mazda6.
A number of other planned Ford products, including a new Lincoln also set for debut at the New York Auto Show this week, also will share the Mazda6/Futura platform.
"Futura will be that rare mid-size sedan that oozes style but doesn't sacrifice roominess, comfort, trunk space — or affordability,” said Ford’s design director, J Mays.
The production vehicle will be a little taller, and decidedly more American in appearance than the Mazda6. It will add about three inches to the Japanese car’s wheelbase, have a wider track and boast completely different sheetmetal. According to Mays, the layout of the family-oriented Ford will deliver more interior space than the sporty Mazda.
The Futura will move away from the soft, “jellybean” styling that was ushered in with the original Taurus in 1986. Its more muscular design was first previewed with this year’s 427 concept — which boasts a look Mays likens to a tightly clenched fist. The Futura will still feature the show car’s three horizontal metal bars, though the look has been softened a bit for the production vehicle.
The three-bar grille harkens back to some of the Ford muscle cars of the 1960s, and is likely to again become a signature for the automaker, according to Mays. “It will find its way into a number of future Ford products,” he says, though he insists the automaker isn’t planning to adopt a cookie-cutter look for all vehicles.
The Futura name is itself a bit retro. It first appeared on a Lincoln concept car in the 1960s, and was recycled repeatedly on a variety of show cars and production vehicles during the decades that followed. In Australia today, Ford sells a version of its Falcon model bearing the Futura designation.
When the new car launches in late 2004 as a 2005 model, it will feature three separate powertrains. There’ll be an economy-minded 2.3-liter in-line four, an engine that debuted in the Mazda6 and which will eventually find its way into a broad range of products, including the next-generation Ranger pickup. For those who want a bit more performance, Ford will also offer a 3.0-liter Duratec V-6.
And the automaker plans to make Futura its second hybrid, offering an optional version of the gasoline-electric powertrain that will shortly go on sale in the Escape SUV. The hybrid-electric Futura will have the capability of running on either its 2.3-liter gasoline engine, its battery-powered electric motor, or both at the same time, when a burst of power is needed.
Ford sources also hint larger displacement gasoline engines are likely to be added to the Futura option list, possibly including a high-performance package that could carry the coveted SVT badge.
Though Futura is similar in its basic size to that of the Taurus — both fall into the so-called C/D segment of the market — it is really only one piece in a broad plan by Ford to satisfy mid-size buyers. The automaker has already announced plans to introduce a slightly larger, or D-sized, sedan, the Ford Five Hundred, as well as a new car/truck crossover, the Freestyle.
That reflects the increasing fragmentation of the U.S. new car market. Individual products that can sell in volumes of much over 200,000 units a year are likely to become increasingly rare, predicts Ford President Nick Scheele. Instead, consumers want vehicles that meet their individual needs. So the challenge, he says, is to produce vehicles that look different, but which share a variety of common components — and which can be rolled down the same assembly line. Both the Freestyle and Five Hundred, for example, will be produced at the Chicago assembly plant currently building Taurus.
Ford isn’t yet saying where the Futura will be produced, though it could very well go into the other Taurus plant in Atlanta, one of the most efficient assembly lines in the company’s production network.
What’s certain is that it will roll down whatever line along with a variety of other new models. Eventually there will be at least ten separate vehicles based off the Mazda6/Futura architecture — a more flexible variation of the platform concept. These will include four passenger cars, four crossover vehicles and two other innovative designs. Ultimately, they will appear under the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury badges, and are expected to generate combined volumes of around 800,000 units annually.
“This will translate into investment efficiency as good as we can get it,” said Mays.