2004 New York Auto Show, Part I (4/6/2004)
Before the doors open, the floodgates do.
Ford Motor Co. plans to add a third hybrid vehicle to its line-up of advanced powertrain products. The automaker has also created a new unit specifically aimed at developing more gasoline-electrics and other advanced powertrain vehicles for its product portfolio.
For the 2007 model-year, Ford will offer a hybrid version of the upcoming Mercury Mariner sport-utility vehicle, the company revealed this week. That will come about two years after the automaker introduces its first gasoline-electric vehicle. The Ford Escape HEV will reach dealer showrooms by early September of this year, more than half a year later than originally planned. The Mariner is a spin-off based on the Escape.
A third hybrid is in the works as well, confirmed Mary Ann Wright, chief engineer on the Escape HEV. Officially, Ford has only said that it will be based on a “future midsize sedan,” but during a news conference this week, company officials inadvertently confirmed that it will be a version of the four-door Futura.
U.S. automakers, as a group, have been slow to follow the lead of the Japanese in entering the hybrid market. Toyota, with products like the Prius, and Honda, with its Insight, dominate the small but emerging segment.
Debate continues over just how much demand there really is for the high-mileage but complex vehicles, which mate both a gasoline engine and electric motor under the hood. Some observers have noted an increase in public interest with fuel prices approaching record levels in the U.S. But that’s not likely to translate into more demand for HEVs, cautioned John Fitzpatrick, General Marketing Manager of Ford’s Lincoln Mercury division.
“We’ve really not seen a shift in consumer buying patterns,” Fitzpatrick said, during other recent periods when fuel prices soared. Consumers, he insisted, “are not influenced by short-term fluctuations in pump prices. Even so, Fitzpatrick acknowledged Mercury advertising for the Mariner hybrid will “absolutely” refer to high fuel prices.
While final government figures have yet to be finalized, Wright said the Escape HEV is on track to achieve its goal of as much as 40 miles per gallon.
Ford officials stressed their belief that for hybrids to succeed, they cannot require consumers to make sacrifices when it comes to such things as roominess, convenience or cargo capacity. They intend to promote the Escape and Mariner HEVs as “no compromise” vehicles to assure customers they are getting more, not less.
Whether due to political and competitive pressures or because of the potential for a real hybrid market to emerge, Detroit’s automakers are belatedly taking steps to expand their gasoline-electric offerings. General Motors is developing a broad hybrid portfolio, the various products set to launch during the rest of the decade ultimately giving it the capacity to sell as many as one million HEVs annually.
Ford appears to be moving in that direction, though it declined to discuss specific plans beyond its initial three HEV offerings.
Wright will now become the director of a new, high-level unit tasked with developing hybrids, as well as fuel cell vehicles and possibly other alternative powertrains. Formally titled Ford Sustainable Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Vehicle Programs group, it is being referred to inside the company as SMT. Wright will have 200 employees reporting directly to her in that new role.
“I’m going to infuse this new organization with people who’ve had experience launching a hybrid with more advanced researchers and scientists,” Wright noted.
One of her goals, she added, is to develop a truly modular hybrid propulsion system that would, in computer industry terms, be “plug-and-play,” easily integrated into other vehicles.
During the Ford news conference, Wright offered the first formal explanation for Ford’s recent decision to sign a technology agreement with HEV leader Toyota. The U.S. automaker was hoping to head off the possibility of inadvertently violating some of Toyota’s patents, she insisted. Wright asserted that Ford does not have any interest in obtaining Toyota hardware or software, but will continue to develop its own, proprietary hybrid systems.