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Ford's future leans heavily on truck, SUV past

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

The Blue Oval has seen the future, and it looks a whole lot like its past.

Ford Motor claims a rich heritage building the nation’s best-selling pickup and the best-selling three-row SUV. Its Mustang is an American icon. And its performance pedigree is enjoying a renaissance under product planners who understand emotion still matters in the business.

Within the next two years, Ford says nearly 90 percent of its sales volume will come from pickups, SUVs and the broadest lineup of commercial vehicles in the U.S. market. That’s huge. And its Explorer SUV will come as a hot ST, too.

I know. You’re thinking, “What, more gas guzzlers now?”

Not exactly. Two points:

First, Ford is pressing ahead with plans to offer gas-electric powertrain options on all the new vehicles it sells – from Mustangs to F-150 pickups. That means it will be providing customers a hedge against rising fuel prices and it will help legitimize a proven technology that's been slow to gain traction.

Second, it’s true the automotive buzz keeps circling around techy mobility and self-driving cars. But the real market made up of real people isn’t there. They’re snapping up trucks, large and small. They want SUVs of all sizes. And the largest segment in the space isn’t occupied by monster Expeditions. It’s compact SUVs like the Escape. They’re less expensive, more fuel efficient packages that ride like cars, offer more space, and appeal to millennial and boomers alike.

American consumers are tilting in Ford’s favor.

Good thing, because investors are looking for signs the Blue Oval has solid plans to optimize performance. That means telling The Street what the plan is and coming to terms with the death of the Great American Car. That’s a reckoning Ford has been slower to embrace than its rivals.

But it will. By the end of this year, Ford is likely to eliminate at least two of its five car models – and, no, one of them will not be the Mustang.

At its so-called “Ford Uncovered” event this week, Ford’s brass said next to nothing about its cars and that says everything. The Blue Oval can’t grow its North American volume to 90 percent trucks and SUVs without cutting some cars.

Only now, Ford is admitting publicly what it needs to do.

After more than a year of relative turmoil, Ford’s management needs stability. It needs a clear line of thinking to negotiate fundamental, and often contradictory, change in the transportation space.

The Blue Oval is making up for lost time. General Motors is on the move. Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne abandoned car production in the United States a couple of years ago.

Left unremarked in all this is Ford’s strategy to play and win in the race for self-driving cars. It’s no accident GM chose Thursday to say it would build its Cruise AV autonomous car and self-driving modules in southeast Michigan.

The implication is unmistakable: What about this, Ford? It’s a fair question the Blue Oval will need to answer it soon enough — because that’s part of its future, too.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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