Ford’s future: More trucks, SUVs, hybrids

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Ford Motor Co. signaled its biggest step yet away from the U.S. car segment Thursday when it said nearly nine out of every 10 vehicles sold in 2020 will be a truck, SUV or commercial vehicle.

Unnamed future Ford SUV teaser photo.

To get there, the automaker is expected to cut at least two car models from its existing U.S. lineup while adding five all-new SUVs over the next two years, along with the 2019 Ranger midsize pickup that debuted at the Detroit auto show in January. The automaker intends to boost its sales mix of trucks and SUVs to 86 percent from the current 70 percent within two years, Ford said Thursday.

News of Ford’s push into SUVs came during the automaker’s “Ford Uncovered” briefing, an effort to show that for all CEO Jim Hackett talks about the not-so-distant future of the automotive industry, the automaker has a plan to efficiently build and sell products to drive profits in order to fund autonomous and electrified vehicles. It’s a move similar to what Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV announced in 2016 when it said it would cut its compact sedans.

Ford said it’s also pushing to move more hybrid vehicles than Toyota by 2021. Every new Ford or Lincoln vehicle introduced over the next two years will have either a hybrid or plug-in hybrid engine option, which should buffer against any rising gas prices as the vehicles get bigger, according to Hackett and Jim Farley, Ford president of global markets.

“You can see where the investments are,” Hackett said. “This gives you a sense of the priority in our spending.”

It’s a play to concentrate on vehicles on which Ford can earn good returns, said Joe Phillippi, principal at AutoTrends Consulting. “They have to cut some cars without a doubt,” he said. “You’re not making money, so why not get rid of them?”

Teaser of the Mustang GT 500.

The company won’t say what sedans it plans to cut over the next few years. Executives spoke only of plans for the Mustang and the Fusion outside of the new trucks, SUVs and commercial vehicles.

Ford has said the next-generation Focus sedan will be built in China and exported to the U.S. starting in 2019. The automaker also canceled the previously planned North American redesign program for the 2020 Fusion. The company has not released plans for the North American Fiesta, C-Max or Taurus.

During Thursday’s presentation, the automaker offered a glimpse of an unnamed battery-electric performance four-door sport utility that Farley says has “the rebel soul of a Mustang.” That venture into performance battery-electrics was just one of several new or refreshed vehicles Farley and others said would be in dealerships within two years. Two new Ford SUVs and two new Lincoln SUVs will be introduced within 24 months.

Also on the way: the return of the Ford Bronco for 2020, as well as an encore for the Lincoln Aviator; a new Ford Escape and Explorer; a performance-tuned Explorer ST; an unnamed small off-road SUV; a hybrid Ford F-150 — and a tweaked Ford Fusion and a high-performance Mustang GT500. All will come standard with the Co-Pilot360 driver-assist package, which standardizes blind-spot detection, automatic emergency-braking, lane-keeping, automatic high-beams and a rear camera.

Overall, the company says it will replace 75 percent of its current lineup by 2020, resulting in what it says will be the lowest average vehicle model age in the industry.

“The freshness is really important from a business standpoint,” Farley said. “But where we compete is where you’re seeing Ford bet on. It’s not just a freshness, it’s where we compete. We have a different cadence than other brands, so making sure we keep (the lineup) fresh as other people refresh is really important.”

Ford leadership said the company will distinguish itself with stellar off-road and performance products. But in a saturated market that’s shrinking due to an industrywide sale plateau, it won’t be easy.

Ford teases the 2020 Ford Bronco as seen under a cover.

“It’s a bold move to pull back on passenger cars almost completely, but the good news is that the consumer shift to SUVs shows no signs of slowing down,” said Jeremy Acevedo, manager of industry analysis with Edmunds. “By the time 2020 rolls around, Ford’s new vehicles will have a lot of stiff competition. Even though SUV sales are robust... when dealer lots are inundated with SUVs of every size, shape and brand, it’s going to take a lot to stand out.”

The company’s plan to push into hybrids — a directive that came from Hackett — will guard against potential increases in fuel prices. The company wants to take hybrids mainstream, offering hybrid-electric powertrain options on the company’s best-selling models like the F-150, Mustang, Explorer and other sport utilities.

“It’s about maximizing their capability and also serving as a hedge against higher fuel prices,” Farley said. “Every time we launch a utility in North America, our intention is to have a hybrid.”

That’s an area Hackett is confident will position Ford well.

“Hybrid technology has gotten much better,” Hackett said. “The idea is can we give (customers) what they want in the future if fuel goes up. And the answer is in those hybrids. That gives people the kind of vehicles they desire, and they don’t pay in fuel economy.”

As part of Hackett’s push to cut costs, the automaker will shift from specific platforms to build vehicles off of five “flexible architectures”: front-wheel drive unibody, rear-wheel drive unibody, commercial van unibody, body-on-frame and battery-electric vehicle architecture, said Joe Hinrichs, president of global operations. He said the move should improve quality as well.

Ford stock closed up 0.5 percent Thursday at $11.07, mirroring the Dow Jones industrial average rise of 0.5 percent.

The plan announced Thursday contributes to what one analyst called an evolution at the automaker over the next two years.

“The integration of both safety and fuel-efficiency tech will bolster the company’s competitiveness as the industry is moving faster than ever toward advanced driver-assist and alternative energy,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. “Most automakers will follow a similar path by 2020, but Ford’s comprehensive approach, including its commercial offerings, should ensure stable or improved market share with potential growth in volume and profit.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau