Ford fights back, Toyota joins NASCAR
Weekly News RoundupFor all the bad news to come out of Detroit in recent months, and Ford Motor Company's announcement last week to shutter assembly plants and slice thousands of jobs from the payroll, this week good news flowed from Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
The company debuted a revamped money-maker, the significantly updated 2007 Ford Expedition, to journalists in Houston, Texas. The new Expedition, which is offered in an extended-length version dubbed the Expedition EL, gets restyled sheetmetal, a new interior, and a redesigned frame for improved ride, handling, and refinement. Last year's 5.4-liter, 300-horsepower V8 is carried over, connected to a new six-speed automatic transmission. Highlights of the new Expedition include standard stability control with rollover sensors, optional side curtain airbags with rollover sensors, touch-screen navigation that includes Alaska and Hawaii, and iPod plug-and-play capability. The new Expedition EL has a longer wheelbase and adds nearly 15 inches of additional length to create 24.8 more cubic feet of cargo volume than the standard Expedition. Folks who tow will be glad to know that the new Expedition can handle up to 9,100 pounds, when properly equipped.
Speaking of Ford SUVs that are properly equipped, the redesigned 2006 Explorer, and its Mercury Mountaineer twin, have earned five-star front and side crash-test scores from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA has not yet rated these models for rollover safety, but the previous Explorer and Mountaineer received a three-star rating in both two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive versions. The 2006 Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer include Ford's Roll Stability Control system as standard equipment, which is an innovative stability control system equipped with roll rate sensors for added security during extreme maneuvers.
Ford is innovating more than safety features, as shown by the Escape Hybrid E85 SUV it rolled out at the Washington Auto Show last week. Dubbed a "world first" by its maker, the Escape Hybrid E85 can run on renewable ethanol-based fuel, regular gasoline, or at low speeds, its battery pack. Made from corn or sugar beets, ethanol is blended with gasoline to create E85, a mix of 15-percent gasoline and 85-percent ethanol. There are many benefits of using E85, such as reduced greenhouse gases, added horsepower and torque, and a renewable source that doesn't require drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, Ford estimates that this E85 burning hybrid SUV runs 25-percent cleaner than a standard Hybrid Escape, and that if just five percent of all vehicles in the U.S. were E85 hybrids, we could cut oil imports by 140 million barrels per year. Ford plans to build 250,000 hybrid vehicles per year by 2010 and will build 250,000 E85-capable cars and trucks in 2006. Though it's just a research vehicle for now, the Escape Hybrid E85 could easily become a reality if consumers demand it.
Topping all this good news from Ford - and all about SUVs, no less - are the company's quarterly and annual profit reports. In the fourth quarter of 2005, Ford saw a 19 percent rise in profit, and earned two billion dollars for the year. That's in sharp contrast to the 4.9 billion dollar loss its cross-town rival General Motors suffered in the fourth quarter alone. It's a good thing that Ford is operating in the black, given President Bush's statements to the Wall Street Journal this week, in which he offered domestic automakers little hope of a federal bailout. So if Ford's profit margins are healthy, why is the company closing factories and laying off thousands of workers? To get lean and mean for the future, a future that includes slumping sales, expensive healthcare obligations, and which could see Toyota surpassing it in North American market share.
Toyota, on the verge of launching an all-new, Texas-built Tundra pickup truck at the 2006 Chicago Auto Show, has announced another assault on a Big Three-dominated competition - NASCAR. That's right, the Toyota Camry is going to compete in the Nextel Cup starting in 2007, duking it out with the Ford Fusion, Dodge Charger, and Chevy Monte Carlo. Toyota has been involved in NASCAR since 2000, and the Tundra pickup has been running the Craftsman Truck Series for a couple of years, but the introduction of the Camry to the Daytona 500 in February of 2007 is a milestone worthy of marking the Japanese automaker's 50th Anniversary in North America. Teams and sponsors of the Toyota Camry will be announced this week.