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Driving It Home

Hugs from Ford’s big boss Add to ...

I was interviewing Ford of Canada president Dave Mondragon on the floor of the Detroit auto show this week when out of the blue Ford’s really, really big boss, CEO Alan Mulally, appeared out of seemingly nowhere. He grabbed Mondragon, gave him a hug, talked about Ford’s great results in Canada and then was whisked away by anxious handlers looking at their watches.

The story here is that for the first time in about 50 years, Ford finished the year as the No. 1 auto maker in Canada. Ford Canada’s sales were up 19.1 per cent on the year, in a market that overall was up 6.6 per cent.

Ford had a good 2010 just about everywhere else in the world, too. Through the first three quarters of its fiscal year, Ford earned some $6.3-billion (U.S.). That made the Blue Oval company the second-most profitable car company in the world through three quarters, behind the larger Volkswagen Group.

From the fastest sports cars to the quietest electric vehicles, there’s lots to see at the auto show in Motor City

Here in Detroit, Ford grabbed headlines by announcing it would create 7,000 new jobs in North America. The company is ramping up production everywhere, actually.

Ford plans to introduce 20 new models or derivatives in Europe over the next two years, from small city cars to commercial vehicles. And Ford plans to introduce 50 new vehicles and power trains by 2015 in Asia Pacific where it is also building new factories in China and Thailand. Ford expects 70 per cent of its growth in the next five years to be in Asia Pacific and Africa.

At the Detroit auto show, Ford unveiled three new hybrid and electric vehicles. By next year its fleet will include plug-in hybrid and gasoline hybrid versions of the C-Max, as well as a battery-powered Focus.

The Focus is Ford’s first battery-powered car to compete against the Nissan Leaf. It can run for up to 160 km on a full charge and Ford said recharging time is about half that of the Leaf.

But let’s not get totally carried away with hugs and kisses. Ford is still lugging around more than $20-billion (U.S.) in debt and has a less advantageous cost structure overall than its Detroit rivals which last year emerged from bankruptcy essentially with clean balance sheets.

Ford’s plan is to keep introducing high value-added new models and pay its way out of the troubles which forced a serious restructuring and complete re-thinking of how Ford does its business.

The new products, so far, are good. The Ford Explorer was named North American Truck of the Year here in Detroit this week. And last week, Consumer Reports reported that Ford is catching up on Toyota in the eyes of customers.

The 2011 Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey found that perennial leader Toyota has declined over the past two years, putting Ford and Toyota in a statistical dead heat. Over a two-year period, Ford climbed 35 percentage points as Toyota plummeted by 46 points, with total scores of 144 and 147, respectively.

However, the study found that Ford excels in the factors that consumers say matter most: safety, quality and value.

But as Consumer Reports giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other. Just as the brand study landed, Consumer Reports also said it won't recommend the 2011 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers because of low test scores – mainly due to MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch technology.

This is Ford's touch-screen technology, used to control such things as temperature, music and cell phone calls from a screen. CR called the technology “a complicated distraction while driving.” It said “first-time users might find it impossible to comprehend. The system did not always perform as promised.”

CEO Mulally promised to do better, rather than get defensive.

“The world is moving this way,” Mulally told reporters in Detroit. “We're going to use everybody's input including Consumer Reports', to make MyFord Touch better and better. I really think we're on the right path.”

I was left wondering if Mulally might even have a hug for CR, what with the consumer bible being so helpful in making Ford products better. Probably not, but with Ford on such a roll these days, you never know.

From the fastest sports cars to the quietest electric vehicles, there’s lots to see at the auto show in Motor City


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