Ford Wipes Blemishes Bit by Bit

by : Lauren Woods

Critics say that the Ford Motor Co.'s product lines have been looking a little dreary lately. This is why the Dearborn-based automaker is gradually wiping its blemishes away.

The struggling domestic automaker intends to improve its 2008 lineup by introducing sizzling newcomers. "There is a new mindset at Ford," said Derrick Kuzak, the vice president of Ford's product planning. "Changing the public perception of Ford is easy. Build better and better products." Indeed. And getting independent validation from groups like J.D. Power and Associates and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) proves the point much better than sales pitches.

Ford will launch its hyped Sync system in the redesigned 2008 Ford Focus. The system, which was developed with Microsoft, allows a driver to connect several electronic devices like a mobile phone and a music player to the vehicle and then operate the devices by voice. It will be made available on 12 vehicles next year.

Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said that "70 percent of the lineup will be refreshed or redesigned by the end of next year," he said. "More customers are recognizing Ford makes great passenger cars. Just three years ago, 70 percent of our U.S. retail sales were trucks and SUVs, and 30 percent were cars and crossovers. Today almost 50 percent of our retail sales are cars and crossovers, thanks to the success of our new products."

While that sounds more like a catchphrase than substance, the proof will be in the product. The 2008 Ford Taurus and the Taurus X are years ahead of the Five Hundred and the Freestyle which they replaced. The 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed transmission gives the vehicles much needed gusto, and the enhanced front ends draw them more into the Ford clan. Auto parts used by the automaker are far from the old , styling and equipment.

The 2008 F-150 exudes the crucial attitude adjustment at Ford. Usually, changes for the last model year of vehicle include uninspired ideas like a new color. But Ford will debut a new XL SuperCrew, created a mid-box lockable storage system for the F-150 and will add an innovative rearview camera that uses a display hidden in the mirror. That is certainly not waiting for the next generation.

There is also more proof of quality improvements at Ford, Mercury and Lincoln. Ford has the most top-quality vehicles in the industry, according to a customer-based initial quality survey released by J.D. Power and Associates.

In its 2007 Initial Quality Study, the Ford Mustang, Mercury Milan, Lincoln MKZ and the Mark LT swept their vehicle segments for top honors. Overall, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury nameplates placed among the top ten nameplates, with Lincoln in third place, Mercury in eighth place and Ford brand in tenth place.

"The quality gap between our vehicles and our competitors' vehicles is increasingly about perception, not reality," Fields noted. "It's another sign our plan is working. We're building a North American business that's on track to compete profitably."

The Dearborn automaker is finding ways to tune up the new Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Mercury Sable, Lincoln MKX, and the Ford Shelby GT Mustang convertible. The automaker also is redesigning the new Escape, F-150, Fusion, Lincoln MKZ and Mercury Milan, Expedition and Lincoln the Navigator.

"We are really starting to deliver products that people will want," Fields concluded. "This is Ford's strongest lineup of vehicles yet. And it's only going to get better, because improving our product lineup each year is what we're all about."

Ford's mantra is: See what's wrong and fix it. Ford does not have the money or time to completely overhaul its lineup. So the automaker is taking a pragmatic approach.