Ford's product onslaught starts with Ranger return

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Wayne — Line workers like Mirek Standowicz here at Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Assembly Plant know this week marks the start of two of the Blue Oval's biggest product launches in several years.

But the official beginning of production on Oct. 29 for the 2019 Ford Ranger also signals a return to form for the factory that built trucks and SUVs here for 64 years before the Great Recession and the plant's detour into assembling compact cars fewer buyers want.

"Everybody wants to build a truck," said Standowicz, a 57-year-old line worker at the assembly plant, told The Detroit News. "We built this compact car, and this car is a car and no one would be very excited about it. Everybody is waiting for the Ranger. Everybody is waiting for the Bronco. We will actually contribute to our profit sharing. It makes you feel good about it."

Cars like the Focus and its gas-electric hybrid cousins fell out of favor with U.S. consumers in recent years — just as they did at Ford, hungry to reap higher profit margins from its U.S. lineup. The automaker announced in April it would ax all its sedan models — save the iconic Mustang — over the next few years in favor of higher-margin trucks, SUVs and commercial vehicles.

Standowicz returns to work this week to help give Ford a shot in the arm. After several years of record U.S. sales and the profits to match, automakers are managing a U.S. sales plateau that analysts don't expect will turn around soon as interest rates and vehicle prices continue to rise.

CEO Jim Hackett attended Monday when the automaker held a celebratory event outside the Michigan Avenue plant a week ahead of the official launch. Line workers took rides in hand-built models even as they checked out the new features and after-market add-ons Ford is planning to offer on the midsize pickup.  

The Ranger debut kicks off a product offensive for the Dearborn automaker, as the company moves to replace 75 percent of its U.S. portfolio with new vehicles or redesigns of existing nameplates by 2020. By 2023, Ford will have three more nameplates in its lineup than it does now, despite plans to drop the Fusion, Focus and Fiesta sedans and hatchbacks.

It could be a lucrative new addition for Ford. The midsize truck segment is growing as U.S. buyers look for utility vehicles that are smaller than F-150s, Rams and Silverados. Ford is trailing General Motors Co. into the market — the Detroit's automaker's Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups are currently the only midsize trucks from Detroit's Big Three battling pickups from Toyota, Nissan and other automakers.

"It's going to be a half-million unit segment," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of global markets. "(That) is plenty big enough to compete in. And we think the built Ford tough Ranger will do really well. This Ranger has been launched around the world and it's doing really well. We know there's a lot of interest."

Hinrichs said the Ranger can play well with the F-150, Ford's best-selling vehicle, and the best-selling truck nameplate in the country. The F-Series have gotten larger since Ford pulled the Ranger from the U.S. in 2001, Hinrichs said. The new midsize truck can fit nicely in a size gap behind the F-150.

Workers at Michigan Assembly spent the last eight years building the Ford Focus and C-Max. Both vehicles have seen steady declines in sales in the last two years — the company negotiated with the UAW three years ago to ax the models, The Detroit News reported in 2015.

The new trucks will hit dealer lots in January. They'll be the first Rangers sold in the U.S. since 2011, when the automaker axed the vehicle.

 "Rangers were a very strong truck for us," Hinrichs said. "We're feeling really good about the truck, and I know our dealers are as well."

Ranger production here precedes the launch of the 2020 Bronco SUV, which will be added to the assembly line at a later date. Michigan Assembly Plant — which roughly a decade ago had to cut shifts when consumers stopped buying its full-size Expedition and Navigator SUVs — will be responsible for the new iterations of two of Ford's most iconic nameplates.

To hear Ford employees tell it, the Bronco and Ranger are two of Ford's most-anticipated launches in the company's history.

"People here are incredibly excited," said Chadd Howard, final launch manager at the plant. "It's not just about making trucks, but bringing back an iconic brand from Ford. It feels like a new building inside here. It's just nice to get back to being relevant."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau