DETROIT — Financial engineering won’t get Ford through its looming crisis, real engineering will.
Moody’s downgrade Wednesday of Ford bonds — with a barely veiled hint of worse to come — brought concern to a boil, but never forget the first law of automaking: No car company ever had a problem a hit vehicle couldn’t fix.
Moving into its latest crisis, Ford can’t fall back into the habit of keeping vehicles in production after they lose any competitive edge. Being late — with alternatives to sedans, with electric vehicles and more — helped Ford get into this mess. It’s got to innovate out of it, and communicate a clear vision to a work force that doesn’t know what comes next.
Ford’s current vehicles illustrate the company’s strengths and challenges.
There’s not an automaker on Earth that doesn’t wish it built the F-series pickups, but Ford’s biggest moneymaker is about to face its toughest challenge yet. Chevrolet, GMC and Dodge all have excellent brand-new full-size pickups hitting the market right now, when the F-150 is several years old and two years from being replaced.
The competition will be brutal, at a time when Ford needs every penny from its corporate cash cow.
At the same time, the new Ford Ranger midsize pickup that goes on sale next year could draw some buyers from the more profitable F-150.
On paper, the Ranger looks like a good truck, but it’s years late compared with key competitors such as the Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon and Toyota Tacoma.
That’s thanks to Ford’s difficulty getting new vehicles into production in a timely manner. The only reason the Ranger isn’t already contributing to the bottom line is that management waffled deciding to build the new truck.
SUVs and cars
Months after Ford announced it will stop building sedans in North America, the public is still guessing about what will replace them. Maybe Ford’s post-car strategy is fully baked and so brilliant that any revelation would only tip off the competition, but maybe there’s no plan at all.
Somehow, saying, “Ford invented the American car, and we’re about to reinvent it. Better, better-looking, fun, safe and practical,” never occurred to anybody. There’s still time, but the company must figure the message out and communicate it, soon.
Simply announcing, “We’re gonna build more SUVs” isn’t enough. Research by Cox Automotive shows that Fusion owners are more likely to shop for a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 than a Ford Escape. If that doesn’t change, Ford’s shift from cars to SUVs will be a disaster.
For the new models to help, they need to start arriving soon, with looks and features buyers can’t ignore.
The hot-selling Navigator is the luxury brand’s only really strong vehicle, and that’s not enough. Updates to the midsize MKX, which will be renamed Nautilus for the 2019 model year, will inject some energy, but Lincoln’s model line needs an expensive overhaul.
Ford is developing a new architecture that could underpin a competitive Lincoln lineup, but history suggests the luxury brand will struggle for resources in a downturn.
The new Aviator SUV coming in 2019 looks promising, but Lincoln’s car lineup is weak, and the MKC and MKT SUVs are aging and irrelevant, respectively.
If Lincoln’s ever going to be a competitive luxury brand, it needs a full line of competitive models. The question is whether anybody at the top levels of Ford can give Lincoln a voice and a vision for that when things get tough.
Self-driving and electric vehicles
With Ford under pressure to retrench, its ambitious plan to create a new tech center in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood is in for lots of scrutiny. This is the time to clarify the vision and make it cause for excitement, not a budget line to be defended.
Self-driving and electric vehicles are the auto industry’s future, but too many executives talk about them the way they tell a 3-year-old to eat spinach. Ford’s future vehicles should embody the passion that goes into engineering and selling a Mustang. If the company can’t communicate that feeling about new vehicles with incredibly advanced technologies, it may be time to ask if Ford understands why buyers will want them.
Ford needs a vision to inspire its workers and interest its buyers. Exciting vehicles can create that. PowerPoints explaining white collar buyouts to bankers won’t.
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.