A tale of two Fords

It wasn’t hard to tell the mood Ford Motor Company was in last July when it sent out the invitations to its annual media drive, or as it called it, the “Ford 2010 Model Year Fuel Economy and Quality Drive Program.”

“We hope you’ll join us to experience the newest innovations in our high-quality, fuel-efficient lineup,” the invite said.

The big news at the event was the announcement of the 2.0-liter Ecoboost four-cylinder engine. Ford patiently but firmly rebuffed any suggestions that the motor might find its way into something small, light and fast, insisting that its sole mission is to replace the company’s naturally aspirated, large displacement V-6s. We also learned about dual-clutch transmissions going into Ford’s smallest cars and plans for plug-ins and EVs within the next five years. Did you know that the Fusion Hybrid’s interior uses materials made from recycled bottle caps?

A month later, I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a SVT Raptor, kicking up a rooster tail of sand as I plow through the Anza Borrego Desert at more than 50 mph. It’s a wonderful, fun, well-executed performance vehicle that just happens to be a big, nasty, loud truck. It’s seven inches wider than the already ginormous base F-150, has a 5.4-liter V-8 (a 6.2-liter motor is on its way), and rides on beefy tires made for clawing through sand, snow, mud, piles of dead bodies in a post apocalyptic world – anything, really. Recycled bottle cap interior? Not so much.

Couple this truck with the only other vehicle in SVT’s stable, the Shelby GT500, and you have a performance division that’s seriously out of synch with the rest of the company’s messaging.

Don’t get us wrong – we don’t question Ford’s commitment to making its lineup more efficient, and the Blue Oval is hardly the first automaker to try and court the Sierra Club and the horsepower club at the same time. But what’s missing from both Ford’s rhetoric and its lineup is an understanding that a green car can also be fun.

“What about the SHO?” you ask. Indeed, what about the SHO? With a powerful V-6 engine and sexy styling, it had a chance to redefine Ford performance. And yet, as technical editor Don Sherman hinted and the SVT guys confirmed, the company’s performance gurus got nowhere near the product. Why not?;

Imports like Honda and Mazda have long produced thrills out of gas-friendly vehicles, and even General Motors has a stable of small-displacement performance cars (although two of them – the Solstice and Sky –have just bit the dust). Look through Ford’s lineup, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a combination of real speed and efficiency.

So we’re calling Ford out: It has the tools, including that new Ecoboost four-cylinder and two excellent upcoming small cars in the Focus and Fiesta. The talent has always been there. It needs to build a sporty car that makes us excited about its future, rather than nostalgic for its past.