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Explorer is latest test of Ford's strategy

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Explorer is latest test of Ford's strategy

SUV to share Taurus platform, cutting automaker's costs

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News


No vehicle symbolizes the latest rise and fall of America's automakers like the sport utility vehicle.

From their advent in the early 1990s, modern SUVs were hugely profitable and sold by the millions, until oil prices began to skyrocket in 2005. Then the bottom fell out of the market and automakers rushed to replace them with more fuel-efficient crossovers.

Now, Ford Motor Co. is getting ready to replace its venerable Ford Explorer -- not with yet another crossover, but with an entirely new SUV. Or at least with a crossover that looks like an SUV and provides similar towing and off-road capabilities.

The new Explorer does all of this, despite being built on the same architecture as the Ford Taurus sedan. What Ford calls its "D" platform also provides the foundation for five other cars and crossovers.

It is the latest and perhaps most dramatic example of the Dearborn automaker's new product strategy, which promises to deliver more choices to customers at lower cost to the company. The idea is to invest in fewer platforms and build more models, or "top hats," off of them.

Analyst George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., says it's a smart move, given the increasingly fragmented car and truck market.

"With so many competing nameplates, you have to be able to make a profit on much lower volumes. The 'top hat' strategy allows you to do just that," he said. "This is not only the way Ford is going, it is the way the entire industry is going."

The idea is not really new. Ford actually pioneered it in 1964, when it built the Falcon, Mustang and Fairlane off a common architecture. GM did the same thing in 1967 with the Chevrolet Camaro and Nova, and the practice is now widespread among automakers.

What makes Ford's approach different is its breadth and depth. Next year, it will launch the all-new Ford Focus, based on its global "C" car platform that is expected to underpin 2 million vehicles annually by 2012.

The economies of scale created by such programs are enormous.

If Ford had to create an entirely new platform for the Explorer, going against the prevailing currents in the people-hauling segment would be a risky move. It would take a lot of sales to cover that sort of investment.

But Ford's top hat strategy means it can afford to gamble on this latter-day SUV, because it needs far more modest sales to be a success. Most of the research, development and tooling costs already have been covered by the other D-platform products.

The challenge is convincing consumers that it is an SUV. That is where the designers come in.

"The customer has no idea what the difference between a unibody and a body-on-frame vehicle is," said Ford design director Moray Callum. "It's really the image that the vehicle conveys that matters to consumers."

A tough, purposeful look

While Ford will not publicly unveil the vehicle until later this summer, The Detroit News was given a sneak peek.

From its sleek headlamps to its LED tail lights, the new Explorer is thoroughly modern, with more rounded edges than its predecessor.

And the underlying architecture is not the only thing it shares with the Taurus. The family resemblance is obvious in its intricate grille and wrap-around dashboard, divided by an imposing waterfall center stack.

The Explorer, however, is armored with lower body cladding that protects it from pebbles and gives it a tough, purposeful look. Its domed hood hints at the power to overcome obstacles. And designers used an array of visual tricks to make it look like it has a wider stance than the other vehicles built of the platform.

Exterior Design Manager Mel Betancourt says this is key to making the new Explorer look solidly planted on -- or off -- the road.

"One of the things that was really important was getting the proportions of the stance right," he said. "So, we got the wheels out. We tucked the body in. We pushed the tail lights out to make the car look wider than it is. We used the rear graphics to accentuate the athletic stance."

Then there are the window graphics. The designers split the two front side windows from the third rear one with a thick piece of steel known as a C-pillar.

"The Explorer has always had a body-colored C-pillar, so we've really accentuated that by blacking out all the other body pillars. It really gives the upper body a very strong signature," Callum said. "It looks like the roof is being held up by the C-pillar. It changes the proportions of the vehicle."

Researching past success

SUV sales peaked at nearly 4.8 million vehicles in 2004, and have fallen steadily since then. But Ford's market research shows that many Americans still want a traditional SUV.

The original Ford Explorer effectively created the SUV segment when it launched in 1990.

Chrysler had the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, but they never achieved the breakout success of the Ford model.

Since then, nearly 6 million Explorers have been sold, and Ford estimates almost 4 million are still on the road today. While many of their original owners have moved on to other vehicles, Ford's market research has convinced the company that there are still plenty of people out there who would like another one.

"We had a lot of defections from Explorer. A lot of our customers were leaving the brand and going to competitors' crossovers and SUVs," said Amy Marentic, head of car, crossover and SUV marketing at Ford. "We wanted a product that would get them back."

In 2007, Ford Americas President Mark Fields told her, and other members of what would become the new Explorer team, to go back and figure out what made the original such a hit.

They talked to retired designers and engineers. They culled through 20-year-old market research. They found that the success of the original Explorer rested on imagery and functionality. Explorer buyers wanted a vehicle that promised freedom and had the capabilities needed to deliver on that promise, even if motorists never actually used them.

"There are still some people out there who want to tow the jet skis more than once or twice a year. They are the people Ford is talking about," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLP. "It probably used to be a larger group, but it's still significant."

Midsize SUV sales are up 20.7 percent this year, according to Autodata Corp.

The problem, Hall said, is that good gas mileage and a comfortable ride is now just as important to these people.

Overcoming the shortcomings of the traditional SUV while retaining the functionality is what the new Explorer is all about, says Jim Holland, chief nameplate engineer of the new Explorer.

"If you go back 10 or 15 years ago, SUVs were an aspirational vehicle -- and Explorer was at the forefront. Then they got labeled as big and ostentatious," he said. "People's sense of adventure is still there, but they're looking for a different solution. What we're doing here is giving them back the capabilities of a traditional SUV, but we're giving it back with modern technology and great fuel economy."

By "great," he means a more than 25 percent improvement over the current Explorer, which gets 14 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. Holland and his team spent a lot of time finding ways to reduce friction and improve aerodynamics on the new model, which will be available with Ford's four-cylinder EcoBoost engine.

Because it shares a common architecture with the Taurus, the new Explorer also will offer a gentler ride and more car-like handling. It will still have three rows of seats, and it will have some significant safety improvements over the current model, including the first-ever inflatable rear seat belts as an option.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100610/AUTO01/6100382/1148/auto01/Explorer-is-latest-test-of-Ford-s-strategy#ixzz0qSgdMuVK

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