By Christopher A. Sawyer
The folks in Dearborn have come a long way in a few short years, but still have some way to go. That much was apparent after a full-line preview at its Dearborn Development Center. As with any automaker, hybrids and electric vehicles draw about as much corporate attention as they do current, driven by government regulations that force their adoption no matter what the buying public wants. Thus the reason for all of the attention paid to the Focus Electric, which could be driven, and the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, which was only on display. And both of which were grandly upstaged by “the little engine that could” — and did.
Electricity was just a small part of the story, however. If there was a main theme, it was that performance can be “responsible” and wielded more like a rapier than a broadsword; a fact underscored by the absence of the Shelby GT500. Its 662-hp supercharged V8 and 200-mph top speed are something of an anomaly, but nevertheless indicative of the fact that performance and efficiency are interrelated. You can’t have one without the other because high performance vehicles help improve the breed. Yet Ford engineers were eager to show the capabilities of their EcoBoost engines, and the iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove performance of the 5.0-liter V8 in the Mustang; an engine so sweet that any regulation that threatens its further existence should be taken as cause for a new American revolution.
Three cylinders, One Liter, So Much Fun
If you were to build a box around this engine, it would cover an area equivalent to a sheet of European A4 paper. It uses a low-inertia turbocharger, direct fuel injection, a cast-iron block that reduces the energy necessary to warm up the engine to operating temperature by 50%, drive belts immersed in oil for lower noise levels, and a deliberately unbalanced flywheel and front pulley to quell vibrations that normally would be silenced by counter-rotating balance shafts. In Europe, Ford’s triple starts with a 98-horsepower version. We will get the stronger 123-horsepower engine, which has the added benefit of supplying 125 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 4,500 rpm. So how does it work?
Brilliantly, to be honest. The tiny triple takes weight off the nose of the Focus, which improves the car’s ability to point into a turn. Further, the thrummy little motor has a surprisingly deep engine note that rises and falls as fast as the engine can rev. On the handling course we took delight in thrashing the motor to redline, throwing the Focus five-door into the corners, and using the surprising torque this engine can produce to pull ourselves over the swales and through the next turns. And we did it again, and again, and again. Our fervent hope is that Ford doesn’t change the suspension tuning one iota (ours was a Euro-spec Focus), or make any other changes that might alter the personality and capabilities of this combination. And, should you not be able to drive a manual transmission, learn how. This engine is at its best when you decide what gear is appropriate for the situation. Plus, given the slow reactions still exhibited by Ford PowerShift dual-clutch automatic transmission in other applications, it would be a crime to hook so eager an engine to so dim-witted a gearbox. Choose the slick six-speed manual.
A Four-Cylinder Taurus?
Yep, that’s a four-cylinder engine under the hood of a Taurus. Thankfully, it’s a 2.0-liter EcoBoost, which means it produces 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 270 lb-ft of torque at 3,000. That may not seem like a lot (probably because you have visions of an over worked four cylinder trying to haul around 4,000 lb of front-drive Taurus sedan), but consider this: The 2011 Crown Victoria sold to police forces produced 250 hp at 5,000 rpm and 297 lb-ft at 4,000 — not much more than the 2.0-liter EcoBoost — while returning just 14 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. The EcoBoost four in the 2013 Taurus is rated at 22 city/32 highway, and is more than strong enough to motivate this car.
Ford did a “city drive” with the 2.0-liter Taurus, preferring to keep it off the proving grounds where the desire to flog it might not show its real world capability. Merging onto the freeway proved no problem for the full-tilt Taurus Limited I was piloting (the EcoBoost four is available on all trim levels except the SHO, though not with all-wheel-drive), and noise levels were more than acceptable. If there was one drawback to the powertrain it was that a car this big and blocky usually comes with a V6 or even V8 sound track.
Unfortunately, though the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine gives the Taurus decent performance and commendable fuel economy, the rest of the car is getting a little old. Despite its generous dimensions, the high belt line and low roof combine with the large front seats to make the interior seem a bit claustrophobic. And while this can be dealt with via lighter interior colors, the Taurus could use a bit more ride development work. Unlike most sedans, it does not drop its tail over bumps (a good thing), but the rear suspension feels like its bushings are fighting to add compliance while also restraining the wheels and tires — and two tons of mass. As a result, it thumps over small imperfections and skips and hops over larger/more frequent ones. It almost makes you wonder if the engineers weren’t able to free up the suspension because all that mass would be tough to control, or because there isn’t enough vertical movement built into the suspension in the first place.
There’s no doubt the new engine keeps the Taurus competitive, and gives buyers a new reason to consider this car. However, it’s also true that time is running out for this platform, and that a newer, more space-efficient version is in the planning stages. Whatever you do, Ford, make sure there’s room for the EcoBoost four and six when it comes time to replace the current Taurus.
When I Grow Up…
Speaking of the Taurus platform, Ford brought out its Police Interceptor range of vehicles for fun. They may look like the Explorer and Taurus, but rest assured these vehicles are officially sold under the Police Interceptor badge. For our entertainment, the all-wheel-drive V6 EcoBoosted cars made it a bit easier to scream down the straights and power out of the corners of the handling course the engineers had created.
Playing “Hutch” to colleague Todd Turner’s “Starsky”, I found the view from the passenger’s seat to be eye-opening. Turner showed an aggressiveness Paul Michael Glaser could only imagine, and threw the big sedan around with an abandon bordering on disdain. And though a torque-vectoring rear differential would be ideal, the Police Interceptor nevertheless proved itself adept at drifting its tail under braking or when off throttle. But what makes the Police Interceptor even more interesting is that the giant slotted and vented disc brakes, all-wheel-drive calibration and other upgrades were shared with the 2013 Taurus SHO. Which means that car should be even more capable this time around. These same parts, with some variation for the difference in vehicle type and use, have also made their way to the Explorer Sport. Oh, and the sedan has been certified capable of taking a 75 mph hit in the tail. Why? Target lock. People see a police cruiser, fix their gaze on it, and drive right into the back.
Drag Racing Pickups and More
Drag racing pickup trucks laden with 1,000 lb of weight in the bed may seem silly, but it proved a great way to illustrate the power of the F-150 EcoBoost. Chevy’s V8-powered Silverado was a full five miles per hour slower in the quarter-mile race. But there was a lot more new on the truck front than this.
The Limited is a new F-150 model that goes beyond the wallet-stretching capabilities of the Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum F-150 models, and is available only with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6; probably so you can get to the bank and make a deposit before your next payment is due. You’ll be able to recognize it via its unique 22-in polished aluminum wheels; body color bumpers, mirror caps, wheel-lip moldings, upper fascia and grille surround; and HID headlamps with integral F-150 insignias. Only three colors are available: Ruby Red Metallic, Tuxedo Black Metallic and White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat. And though available in either two-wheel- or four-wheel-drive, there’s only one body style: the four-door SuperCrew.
Inside you’ll find heated and cooled red leather seats up front with a driver’s seat memory function. And though the rear seats are trimmed the same, they’re only heated. Aluminum trim is used on the center console, and this contrasts with the piano black accents. The ambient lighting has five different color moods. A moonroof is standard, as is a power-sliding rear window and voice-activated navigation. As expected MyFord Touch is standard as well. There’s even a programmable 4.2-in productivity screen that can be used to monitor various vehicle systems, and a media hub with USB ports, a SD-card reader, input jacks and a Sony audio system.
If the Limited seems too much the suburban dilettante, there’s always the Raptor. And for 2013, this model gets forged aluminum wheels that are upgradeable via a bead-lock wheel kit from Ford Racing, HID headlamps, and MyFord Touch. There’s even a new flat (not matte) finish color, Terrain; perfect for desert maneuvers. This comes in addition to the Torsen limited-slip front differential and front-facing camera added last year. Rommel would be jealous.
Electrifying… or Not
Obviously Ford knows the Focus Electric is a margin play aimed at folks with the money, environmental angst and “look at me” do-gooder mentality natural selection should have squashed long ago. Its 143 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque make for a small hatchback that accelerates swiftly, but each quick start drains away energy that may be the difference between making it home under power or on a flatbed.
Another fun killer is the $39,200 MSRP which, even with $7,500 from the Feds (a.k.a. fellow taxpayers), amounts to a pretty pricey small family hatchback. To compensate, Ford outfitted the Focus Electric with a more luxurious trim level, high line paint, and a nose that mimics that of the 2013 Fusion. And while the Focus Electric gets off the line quickly, its low rolling resistance tires lose grip just when things get interesting.
Open the hatch, and you’ll find another surprise: a raised load floor. This is necessary to clear the battery pack that stores less energy, but takes up more room than the standard Focus fuel tank. One neat feature is a pair of legs that can be deployed to raise the rear of the load floor, making for a flat load surface. Squeezing the handle on the top surface folds the legs away when not needed.
This lack of space also is found in the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. Unless you use your small people mover only to move people (and not people and things) this intrusion into its cargo carrying capability really cuts its utility. But this is the future you get when the government decides what you’re going to drive.
One last note. As the previously mentioned Mr. Turner pointed out, customers living in areas with tiered energy pricing may want to think carefully about buying an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. The reason is simple. Tier pricing does not happen on a pro-rated basis. One your energy usage tops the threshold between a lower and upper tier, all of your energy is priced at the higher price. And with the growing market for personal electronic devices, household energy use is on the rise. Is that 240-volt charging station in the garage, even though it gives your depleted Focus Electric or C-Max Energi a full charge in four hours, worth the expense; especially when the diesel C-Max in Europe offers a greater range and near two-week refill schedule under normal conditions? It’s enough to make you wonder why, if we were rational people, we wouldn’t be clamoring for diesels.
Taken together, Ford has a strong lineup, and seems to be moving from strength to strength. However, its troubles with its MyFord/MyLincoln Touch infotainment system — since rectified by a software upgrade that has been very well received by customers, and transformed into an upgrade service instead of a way to rectify mistakes — hurt Ford’s quality ratings. In addition, the continuing reluctance of the dual-clutch PowerShift automatic gearbox to react rapidly enough highlights a weakness that could move from annoying to critical as vehicles become more software dependent. The first real test will come with the launch of the 2013 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ. These vehicles are new from the ground up, and carry a high level of variability with their numerous powertrain and vehicle options. Further glitches could harm Ford’s hard-won image, and cause customers to opt for a “safer” choice.
In addition, the coming years will see a new Mustang, F-150 and a revamp of the entire Lincoln brand and lineup. All are vital to Ford’s continued success, and these changes are taken against a backdrop of federal mandates on fuel efficiency, energy use, and vehicle electrification; all of which could create vehicles the customer doesn’t want, but automakers must still sell. Yet of all the domestic automakers, Ford has the broadest global portfolio and roster of executives from which to choose. These advantages by themselves will help see the company through rough times, provided the next regime doesn’t begin to dismantle the culture brought to Ford by current CEO Alan Mulally. If Ford is to grow and triumph in the coming decade, it must build upon the work he has begun, and drive its benefits and lessons much deeper into an organization that still makes careers more than it makes cars.