New York 2012: Ford's Mark Fields Talks Fuel Economy, Lincoln, and In-Car Electronics

A shiny red 2013 Ford Fusion may have been parked nearby, but at a lunch with media at the Manhattan Ford dealership, Ford president of the Americas Mark Fields was more interested in talking about the company's sales success, its leadership in fuel economy, the future of Lincoln, and in-car electronics.

The lunch came only hours after Ford announced strong sales for March 2011, with sales volume up five percent year-over-year. Fields attributes much of that sales success to fuel-efficient models, noting that over 50 percent of Ford F-150 trucks sold last month had V-6 engines, while the Focus enjoyed a sales jump of 64.7 percent year-over-year.

Fields says there's a perfect storm of factors leading people to buy more fuel efficient cars. Gas prices skyrocketed in much of the country, and an improving labor market means more potential buyers have jobs. He also believes many customers kept their cars for longer than usual during the recession, and are finally able to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle now that credit has become more readily available.

The company's smallest car, the Fiesta, saw sales drop 33.6 percent compared to March 2010, but Fields says that's not a cause for alarm when company volume as a whole is up. Individual models may encounter rough sales months, but "the good news is overall, we're growing our car business."

Fuel Economy Solutions

Speaking of economy, Ford this week announced that the 2013 Fusion will be offered with engine stop-start as a $295 option. The car also will eventually be offered in hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants, which Fields says is a demonstration of how Ford will offer a variety of different ways for customers to save on fuel by offering everything from downsized turbocharged engines, to full electric vehicles. People who drive in the city might find it worthwhile to buy the stop-start package, while those who commute on the highway might turn it down, for instance.

"We've taken the point of view as a company that the price of gasoline will continue to rise over time," Fields explained, which led the company to invest heavily in technology like hybrids and its turbocharged EcoBoost engines.

Ford isn't currently willing to bet big on diesel engines because the company believes the extra cost of diesel powertrains can outweigh the fuel economy savings, and also because diesels have struggled to gain popularity in our market. But if diesels ever took off in the U.S., Fields says Ford could bring its European diesel engines (from cars like the Fiesta and Focus) to market in here in less than three years. That's because, under the One Ford strategy, cars sold in all parts of the world share the same fundamental mechanical and technical components, making it relatively easy to transplant engines.

One alternative fuel solution that Ford won't likely launch is hydrogen fuel cells. "Those aren't anywhere near commercialization yet," Fields said.

Fields also touched on Azure Dynamics, a company that built electric versions of the Transit Connect but recently applied for bankruptcy. There's no clear indication of how that partnership will proceed, but for now Fields says, "Our approach is to make sure the customers who have purchased them [electric vans] are taken care of."

The Future of Lincoln

Fields reiterated that Ford Motor Company will "reinvent" the Lincoln luxury brand, in part by launching new vehicles that don't have the stigma of being only for older drivers. Although Lincoln has decent brand equity now, it will take a raft of high-quality new products and a more upscale, inviting ownership experience before Lincoln becomes what Ford thinks of as a "world-class" luxury brand.

"We realize that the Lincoln strategy is going to roll out over a number of years," Fields said.

Ford will evaluate the success of its Lincoln revamp based on four main areas: profits, growth in market share, brand perception, and increased residual values. Over the next few years, Lincoln should debut seven all-new or significantly redesigned vehicles.

More In-Car Electronics

Fields answered with a resounding "no" when asked whether he thinks drivers will ever stop using phones, touch-screens, or other distracting technologies while driving. "Consumers still have a large appetite for the right type of electronics in their vehicles," he said. The Sync voice recognition software is now optioned in about 80 percent of all new Fords, while the MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems are optioned by about 60 percent of buyers.

Even so, Ford plans to work with legislators on how to improve car safety and reduce distracted driving. Fields relates that the company once turned down a supplier who suggested installing satellite TV in the MyFord Touch screen, for instance. But Fields wouldn’t be drawn on whether navigation or hands-free phone systems might be banned outright in the future.

"I'm going to leave the rulemaking up to the lawmakers," he laughed.

Whatever other in-car gadgets Ford launches, they are sure to be tested more thoroughly. Pointing to the initial criticism and recent update of MyFord Touch, Fields says that Ford needs to do more beta-testing of technologies. While the 109-year-old company "knows how to mechanically shake down a vehicle," Fields says Ford is still learning how to test the performance and reliability of touch-screen computers.

For more on the 2012 New York International Auto Show, including videos, the latest photos, and more information, click here to visit our New York Show homepage.

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