It may have been one small step for Motor Trend magazine, but the selection of the 2010 car of the year certainly was one giant leap for Ford Motor Co. This week it was announced that the 2010 Ford Fusion won the Motor Trend car of the year award. It was the first time since 2003 that a Ford had manage to claim the coveted prize.
I, personally, am very happy that the Fusion took home top honours this year. It gives some well-deserved credit to the only one of the struggling "Big 3" car manufacturers that has actually made real progress in the last few years. The reason I am so happy that Ford has been recognized for its efforts to turn the company around is because of the way it went about it; unlike their Detroit-based brethren, they tried to solve their issue from the showroom instead of the boardroom.
For years we were hearing about the declining popularity of North American cars and the take over of the market share by the leaders out of Europe and Japan. There were explanations and theories about labour costs and people's sudden aversion to buying big gas guzzling cars and SUVs. These were true enough and did contribute to the problem. But at the core of it all, irrespective of what was being created overseas, was the undeniable fact that the cars they made were junk.
Now that might seem a bit harsh. I am sure there are lots of people who own, or owned, a mid-90's to mid-2000's Ford, Chevy or Chrysler product and thought it was great. I'm sure it was. But the fact is there were less people on your side than there were against you. "Junk" is a relative term, of course. Were the cars absolutely unbearable, unreliable and unsafe? No. But compared to what else was out there, buying one would have been a bit like turning down a week vacation in Maui to see the touristy bits of Nebraska.
While the news kept breaking of company restructuring and managerial rearranging, the sad news was the product was left for what it was: simply undesirable. It had been out- styled, out-engineered and outclassed by the competition. For years the U.S. auto makers kept pumping out cars that looked like bars of soap on wheels and left a lot to be desired when driven. They were uninspiring to look at, bland to drive and not all that reliable.
Take the Chevrolet Impala, for example. I look at that thing and can't think of one single attribute that would make it a desirable car to own, other than the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives one and people move out of your way on the highway because they think you're a cop. For too long now I have looked at the North American cars and can't help but think "rental car." Again, there are a few exceptions; the Corvette is timeless, the new Camaro and Challenger are funky, but you can't carry umpteen sub-par models on the back of a few good ones.
That is why Ford deserves some credit. A few years ago the light bulb went on and they started updating the only part of the company that the consumer sees every day: the cars. What was so puzzling was that Ford and Chevy were both doing well in the European markets, albeit with cars that they didn't sell over here. Was it that big a stretch to believe that maybe they would be popular here too? Did someone not clue into the fact that every time there was a commercial on TV for the Focus it said in small print, "European model shown"? It was better looking!
It took these companies too long to realize that North Americans were ready to embrace change and move away from the big, boxy cars of yesteryear and toward smaller, funkier, more efficient cars like our European neighbours. Ford made the move first and it has been paying dividends ever since.
Ford was the only US auto maker to turn down bailout money from the government, and they actually posted a profit in the second quarter of this year. This has to be largely because their product on the road improved so dramatically.
They started coming out with cooler looking cars, like the Edge. Place it next to the SUVs that came before it like the Explorer and Escape and it looks like the "before" and "after" shots of the lucky guest on Oprah's makeover show. Even things that are a little overboard for me, like the Ford Flex, are selling well. And of course the Fusion is now an industry leader. All this came because they focused their efforts in the right place.
This new fleet of Fords boasts better quality, more focus on things like fuel efficiency, improved driving experience and, certainly not least, vastly improved looks. Not only are they keeping up with the competition, they are leading the pack.
It has been a long time coming, but I am glad that when someone asks me what new cars to look at, I can say, without hesitation, "Have you checked out a Ford lately?"
James Hinchcliffe is a Toronto-based racing driver with the IndyCar Lights circuit.