Payne: The Ford future will be energized

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to say the Ford Mustang GT500 and GT350 were last sold concurrently in 1969. 

In a rare public peek into its crystal ball Thursday, Ford confirmed we are ute nation. The Dearborn automaker predicted that by 2020 a whopping 86 percent of its sales will be driven by SUVs and trucks as Americans continue to flee from cars. That’s up from 70 percent today and 64 percent a decade ago.

The 2019 Ford Edge ST is unveiled during the press preview at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Michigan, on January 14, 2018.

But that doesn’t mean the future won’t be fun.

Ford’s SUVs will draw heavily on the automaker’s on- and off-road performance heritage including a battery-powered Mustang-derived ute, a rock-busting Bronco and two ST-badged SUVs including a three-row Explorer.

“We all have passions. You want to enjoy the car you’re driving, and Ford is focused on creating cars you want to drive every day,” says Chattanooga, Tennessee dealer Todd Dwyer, general manager of Marshal Mize Ford. He drives the insane 450-horsepower F-150 Raptor off-road animal to work every day.

The $51,000 Raptor (I terrorized a desert off-road course in a loaded $68,655 model two years ago) not only represents Ford’s performance passion but also the profit-gushing F-series. Truck sales will fuel the Blue Oval’s ambitious plan to replace 75 percent of its product in two years, including four new nameplates. The F-series is the best-selling vehicle in autodom at nearly 900,00 units sold in 2017. It covers an astonishing price-bandwidth from the $30,000 base-model to a diamond-studded $65,000 Limited, which pave the road with the lion’s share of the company’s profit.

Dubbed the “Porsche 911” of trucks, the Raptor alone outsold Porsche’s entire sports car lineup in 2017.

One of the 2020 Ford vehicles will be an all-electric, Tesla-fighting four-door SUV “with the rebel soul of a Mustang” grinned global market boss Jim Farley. That grin means this won’t be a granola-fed moving speed bump.

Journalists gather around Jim Farley, Ford executive vice president and president of global markets, during the media days at the 2018 North American International Auto Show. Farley describes one of the 2020 Ford vehicles as an all-electric, Tesla-fighting four-door SUV “with the rebel soul of a Mustang.”

Channeling the iconic Mustang’s muscled heritage, the EV will be performance-oriented. Ford, echoing other automakers like Volvo and its Polestar EVs, is unsure of the broad market for electrics. But Tesla’s success has proven a thirst for battery-powered performance.

How determined is Ford that the EV be a performance halo for six new EVs by 2022? One of the names in play is the “Mach 1” – resurrecting one of Mustang’s storied performance badges from its ’60s muscle-car heyday.

Watching over these new siblings like Simba on Pride Rock will be the 2020 Mustang GT500. This 700-plus horsepower beast will be the most powerful Mustang ever and will sit alongside the Mustang Shelby GT350 in showrooms – the first time these athletes have been offered together since 1969.

Ford’s new SUV lineup will also get an infusion of ST-eroids.

“We’re planning a massive expansion of ST models,” said a Ford spokesman of the “Sports Technology” badge that has made motorheads’ pulses race on Focus and Fiesta hot hatches.

The Ford Edge is the first SUV to get the ST badge – even before the Fusion sedan, another indication of how radically the market has shifted away from cars. On Thursday, Ford announced that its three-row Explorer SUV will also get the ST badge. Not only that, but it is reportedly built on a rear-wheel drive, unibody longitudinal-engine architecture – just like high-end performance SUVs from the likes of Jaguar.

That’s a long way from the original truck-based body-on-frame Explorer dinosaurs that roamed the earth as recently as 2010.

As the F-150 Raptor indicates, Ford performance doesn’t stop where the asphalt ends. One of the Dearborn maker’s most anticipated vehicles is the rugged Bronco, another iconic name from the past. Bronco will go head-to-head against the Jeep Wrangler, coveted by adventure seekers everywhere.

“Ford helped start the off-road phenomenon and has majored in off-road capability for decades – from the Bronco to the Raptor,” said Ford’s Farley. “Now we’re ready to reclaim our rightful place as the off-road vehicle leader.”

The Bronco will sit on the same bruising truck frame as Ford’s mid-size Ranger pickup. It is one of five skeletons Ford will use going forward: front-drive unibody, commercial van unibody, body-on-frame, rear-wheel drive unibody and battery-electric “skateboard” platform.

Ford promises that the latter platform, the most ambitious in its lineup, will be the foundation for a future of connected, roomy, ride-sharing electric cars plying streets with no steering wheel. But with its inherent low center-of-gravity and the soul of a Mustang, it also suggests drivers will have a seat for the future.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.