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auto industry

2011 Ford Explorer

For Ford, the current decade is shaping up to be all about fuel economy. What a switch.

This is the company that made billions in the 1990s championing big-gut consumerism exemplified by hulking, gas-swilling pickups and SUVs. Ford's apparent transformation is nothing short of shocking.

It's shocking until the Ford product developers, led by group vice-president Derrick Kuzak, explain the underlying assumption: Ford expects oil to be at $150 a barrel by the middle of the decade, if not sooner. As a result, Ford in the U.S. has long said gasoline will jump to $4 to $4.50 (U.S.) a gallon in 2013 or 2014, which would mean a litre of gas in Canada would be selling for something north of $1.50.

Well, welcome to 2013/2014, as far as pump prices are concerned. If you're like me, you've recently paid around $1.40 for a litre of regular. When it comes time to fill up, the future is now and the news suits Ford just fine.

There is more, too. Ford, like all auto makers, is being pushed by governments in Canada and the United States to make even big pickups and SUVs more efficient - easier on fuel and with lower greenhouse gas emissions. Stiffer government fuel economy regulations are on the way for 2016.

This potent mix of expensive fuel and government intervention is a huge challenge for a company like Ford, which still relies heavily on truck sales to pad the bottom line. In a nutshell: no one believes truck buyers are prepared to go back to the 1950s, when a Ford F-100 truck came with a six-cylinder engine rated at a measly 115 horsepower. To be successful today, trucks must be powerful and fuel-efficient.

Now you know why Ford is replacing the F-150's entire engine lineup for the 2011 model year. A V-6 will be standard. Also available: two V-8s and an EcoBoost V-6 with turbocharging and direct fuel injection.

Ford says the new lineup will be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than the outgoing lineup of three V-8s. And in each instance, the Ford engine boasts better fuel economy than the direct competitor.

So that's the pickup story and it leads me to the SUV side of this fuel economy tale. In hearing it from Ford, I have to say the storytellers sound a lot like a bunch of reformed smokers or recovering alcoholics - just substitute the evils of puffing and drinking with the horror of guzzling gas. Ford has seen the light and it's shining on fuel economy!

Still, facts are facts. Ford's pickups are less thirsty and so, too, is the 2011 Ford Explorer. You remember the Explorer, right? It was the poster child for a sneaky, cynical ploy to circumvent passenger car fuel economy rules in the U.S. by bolting a station wagon body on top of a Ranger pickup chassis. Voila! The Explorer. In its best years, Ford sold 400,000-plus Explorers annually, banking billions along the way.

Ford will never again sell 400,000 Explorers a year, but something better than the 60,000-ish moved last year would be nice. Which brings us to the 2011 Explorer. Ford says it gets 25 per cent better highway fuel economy than the old model.

Frank Davis, Ford's vice-president of product development in North America, says Ford aimed for fuel economy leadership with the new Explorer and got it by besting rivals such as the 2011 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The secret to improving fuel economy is no mystery, however. The Explorer has abandoned the traditional SUV formula: rugged body-on-frame construction, rear-wheel-drive and V-8 power. The redesigned Explorer has none of that.

The Explorer now shares a front-drive platform with the Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKS sedan and MKT crossover. A V-6 engine (290 horsepower) is standard and coming soon is an Explorer equipped with the EcoBoost four-cylinder engine (237 hp). It will be offered on front-drive versions.

Ford's launch of the F-Series and the Explorer with more fuel-efficient engines seems pretty smart, prescient even, given the recent level of fuel prices. But even before the most recent oil shock, product czar Kuzak and his band of product developers were carrying on about Ford research that said 70 per cent of buyers want better fuel economy and about a third of those say they would change brands for a "significant improvement."

But research into what people say they want does not always match the reality of what vehicles they actually buy. Thus, there is something of a gamble in all this: will truck buyers make the transition to a Ford engine lineup dominated not by V-8s, but V-6s.

That's where the marketing comes in. Ford's high-stakes approach is to promote a high-tech, six-cylinder engine in its best-selling vehicle, the F-Series. The 302-hp V-6 with a new six-speed transmission is competing as the No. 1 seller in a market where eight cylinders rule.

Moreover, for the first time, Ford will offer a V-6 in its popular crew cab model, which accounts for 60 per cent of all F-150 sales.

The new 5.0-litre V-8 engine is pretty straightforward, but the 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6 isn't. It is potent - enough to tow a 5,125 kg trailer - but Ford is blazing a new trail by offering a smaller, high-tech engine is a pickup. The talking point: the engine delivers 20 per cent better fuel economy than a V-8 with comparable power.

Ford is now busy re-educating its V-8-loving customers while also trying to pull in a new generation of buyers more open to the idea that technology can decouple power from size or displacement.

Of course, Ford's rivals have something to say on the matter. Their argument: customers don't want a high-priced V-6, turbocharged or not, and won't be willing to pay the $1,000 premium over the base V-8.

But then, none of Ford's rivals has a high-tech V-6 on offer. So are we talking EcoBoost envy?