February 24, 2009 at 8:27 pm

New Ford center crashes cars to lower repair costs

Inkster facility brings repair, safety experts together to study ways to cut collision expense.

Engineers Gerry Bonanni, left, and Larry Coan hold up a new type of door being tested at the crash center. The 10,000-square-foot facility was built at a cost of $650,000 in a partnership with suppliers. (Wayne E. Smith / The Detroit News)

INKSTER -- Ford Motor Co. smashes up its cars to save you money. Then it crashes its cars and trucks again to try and save you even more money.

The newly opened Paint and Body Technology Center uses information from the crashes to find new ways to lower vehicle repair costs, executives said Monday. The 10,000-square-foot facility, which was built at a cost of $650,000 through a partnership with suppliers, brings Ford's repair and crash safety experts together.

"Our bottom line for this new initiative is simple: If your vehicle costs less to repair, it's going to cost less to insure," said Darryl Hazel, president, Ford customer service division.

While every carmaker crash tests vehicles, Ford has brought its safety and repair designers and engineers into the fold during a vehicle's development instead of afterward, said Steve Kozak, Ford's chief engineer for global safety systems.

The new Ford Focus underwent design changes to improve its safety and lower repair costs. On a 6-mile-per-hour bumper crash test, the Focus sustained $588 worth of damage. On the same test, a Volkswagen Rabbit experienced $4,078 worth of damage.

"This is becoming more common in the development of a car," said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief at Edmunds.com, an automotive research Web site. "There is a benefit to the consumer if it costs less to replace parts and it reduces the amount of damage."

The all new 2009 F-150 was one of the first vehicles to undergo a comprehensive version of the Ford program and executives said it could lower frame repairs by $2,000.

Ford has created a frame for the F-150 that is built in three parts, said Gerry Bonanni, Ford collision repair senior engineer. Instead of scrapping a vehicle because of a bent frame, Ford repair personnel could replace the bent section of it.

Brauer said advances in technology have allowed carmakers to create more parts on a car that can be replaced easily.

Additionally, Hazel suggested that Ford could generate additional income by selling more parts.

"The customer has the right to ask for Ford genuine parts," Hazel said. "And I'd recommend they do that."

One reason consumers should ask for Ford parts is because aftermarket replacement parts are not tested on Ford vehicles and may not allow a repaired vehicle to feel like new again, Kozak said.

Another savings Ford will reap from the new center is its ability to study test crash cars more than once.

A test vehicle can cost as much as $500,000. Now, the vehicles can be repaired and tested again.

The Ford facility also works with suppliers to test paints and painting methods to ensure that customers have a car returned as nice as it was before the accident.

"That's what this partnership allows us to do," said Joe Skurka, a BASF spokesman. "When people get their vehicle back they expect it to look the same and have the same performance as before. If it doesn't there's a customer satisfaction issue."

Every 2010 model will endure the testing and repair program and Ford hopes to develop it even more since opening the facility two months ago.

Brauer added that there's even an environmental aspect to the program. "The biggest waste you can create is getting rid of an entire car," Brauer said. "Repairing cars that don't have to be scrapped is much more efficient and uses much less energy."

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com">sburgess@detnews.com.