Ford Takes the LA Beaches and aims for a little more.

Escape Hybrid is the official vehicle of LA County Life Guards
Escape Hybrid is the official vehicle of LA County Life Guards

 It is no secret I love cars.  Also it is no secret that I jump at the chance to see the new ones and let the manufacturer show off a bit.  Tuesday was Ford’s 2009 Model Ride and Drive for the media.  Very clear- Ford loves bloggers.  They view, respect and treat us like the traditional media. Bloggers and online media outnumbered the traditional media at this event.

Short version of my day with Ford:  The Escape Hybrid is the official vehicle of LA County Life Guards.  They are proud of it and should be.  They have some great little cars for us now and on the way.  They have some good alternatives to the SUV with their variety of Cross-over vehicles.  The latest version of Sync kicks Onstar into the dirt and rubs its face in the mud. 

For all the blather about the media event, the PR guys showing off the cars and my take on a few of the cars you need to make the jump.

After doing a little research I was still puzzled on why the huge amount of heavy thirsty vehicles that remains in Ford’s line up. It took a little reminder from the Western Region Marketing Manager, Hal Dewsnap to remember that the cars hitting the show room now take 2-3 years from concept to production. Rewind a bit longer than that to when Ford decided to shift focus from SUV’s to crossovers and you are looking even further back to the days when gas was still under $2/gallon.

According to Dewsnap, two years ago Ford decided the next big market focus would be “high content, high quality, fun to drive cars. In Europe we are a dominate player in that segment and were looking to do it here too. With the rapid change in the market we will be drawing on the European Ford small cars to build that segment here. The first of those cars will be the Ford Fiesta on sale here for 2010.” (Quick side bar is I asked him if he could bring me the Ford Ka as myself and many others have been wishing for that one for a while).

A lot of time was devoted to the Sync system.  There is more informaiton than I can give you here but you can get all you’d ever want at the Sync home page.  In does more than interface with your MP3 player and phone.  It maps your route, alerts you to traffic problems and all sorts of nifty features.

The best part of Sync was the voice interaction of the system.  I announced “I’m hungry” and it displayed a list of food style to choose from.  I opted for “5” and it gave me a list of BBQ joints in the immediate area.  How slick is that for a road trip? 

Sync as it appears in the 2009 Lincoln MKS application
Sync as it appears in the 2009 Lincoln MKS application

 One question I had for Tom Hodges, the Sync guy on hand for us.  With Sync being a venture with Microsoft, how well protected is the OS from the techno-terrorists that enjoy hacking and planting malicious bugs?  With so many ports open for text messages, mp3 and the like interfacing, what is the potential of someone crashing the OS?  Pretty slim as in his words “the firewalls and antivirus are the equivalent of a Sherman Tank between the external devices and the central sync operating system”.

Ford and the environment was an interesting topic.  New paint technology called “wet paint” that is water based and reduces noxious fume emissions is being rolled out into the manufacture process.  The Focus is using soy-oil based foams for the seats with recycled plastics in the cloth interiors.  Funny bit on the latter…as it is soy based they had to actually work to put the “new car smell” back in as it was absent with the soy based foam in the seats.  Stopping off gassing is a good thing.  I personally wouldn’t mind not having the new car smell as it signals a cleaner manufacturing process.

Window sticker on the LA county Escape touting its PZEV qualities
Window sticker on the LA county Escape touting its PZEV qualities

 Of interest to every Los Angeleno is Fords continuing policy of reducing car emissions.  There is a “PZEV” standard which means “partial zero emission vehicle”.  PZEV defined and set by our CARB.  Only the cleanest of cars with completely closed fuel systems get that rating.  Ford has 3 PZEV’s in its fleet, Focus, Fusion 4cyl, Taurus, Taurus-X and the Escape Hybrid. More cars are in the works that will meet that standard without the expense of hybrid technology.

John Clinard, Western Region Communications Manager, spent a lot of time talking about the History of Ford and directions of things to come.  In the 60’s and 70’s Ford called itself “The wagon-master” as they had a wagon for every size and stage of a person’s life.  Jump into this century and they are still focused on being the people hauler this time the “Cross-over master” with a cross-over for every lifestyle.

OK, I get it now.  My generation rejected the station wagon as it was our parent’s car and where we grew up in the “way back”.  Our kids are rejecting the Mini-van and SUV as it was the vehicle they grew up in.  The Cross-overs are just the next wave in people moving automobiles.  Being a car guy I never got into the whole mini-van, SUV thingy and it explains why I’m not hot on the cross-overs.

You can tell Clinard was proud to talk about how LA County Life Guards came to Ford wanting the Escape Hybrid as their official Life Guards vehicle.  The conversion involved additional bits and features to make it as useful as possible for their equipment storage and access in an emergency.  It didn’t need any mechanical modifications to put it into service for the Life Guards. Not even a tire swap for use in the sand.

Fuel economy has always been a concern, more so now since gas as been so unstable the last several years.  A pet peeve of mine has always been the ads that claim “up to XX MPG” and quote the highway number.  Rarely do real people see that number.  This is especially true for those of us running around LA.  Rarely are the freeways open enough that we can cruise at the optimal speed for max mileage.  Rather in the daily commute it is a grind on the brakes leaving the EPA city number as our more realistic number.

All the Fords and Lincolns in the ride-drive had an MPG display gauge.  The average it displayed in all fairness indicated was the result of a wide variety of driving styles with a lot of near stop to freeway speed acceleration.  All of that does tend to use a lot of fuel.  It does however illustrate nicely the low end of a vehicles potential mileage.  It is a more realistic expectation of what one will see over the course of a month of urban driving instead of the overly optimistic EPA Highway mileage number.  At the risk of getting shot, I’m putting up the number displayed.  As always your driving habits will affect the final outcome.   

The Drive and Ride Experience

Media guys get the details on the 2009 Lincoln MKS

There were several cars I was really interested in.  On the practical side the Focus Coupe was high on the list.  I was curious about the Flex.  I honestly didn’t know what to think of the Lincoln MKS, even after seeing it live at least years LA Auto Show and in so many magazine articles hyping it.  Of course before we got to actually drive any of the cars we had to listen to the PR guys give us the run down on why the car is important to Ford and what changes if any make it different from the prior iteration of the car.

Ford Focus Coupe.  I really liked this little car.  Good acceleration though there was a definite flat spot in the lower power ranges that warranted really stepping on it for a quick down shift.  Decent ride for its size, very good noise, vibration and harshness improvements over my cousin’s 2002 model.  It has very comfortable and supportive seats.

2008 Ford Focus with the media mobbing it
2008 Ford Focus with the media mobbing it

The sync display is a smallish led screen rather than the large touch screens in the other models. But there isn’t the space on the tight Focus dash for that large screen. My suggestion…next redesign of the dash, put the touch screen with all the bells and whistles and you’ll have a hot ticket. I honestly believe the technology whores out there would gladly drop a little extra for the whole sync touch screen package and skip the windshield mounted aftermarket GPS unit.

According to Nicole DeRuiter, Ford PR with whom I rode, this generation Focus will retain the same features and ease of modifying those previous models had to the delight of the tuners out there.

With all the various improvements it is a great little car for the money. MPG display: 31.5

Ford Escape Hybrid.  Wow!  What a terrific improvement from the original I first drove in early 2003 as a member of a test panel.  The new 2.5L for is greatly improved in the whole noise vibration and harshness routine.  The gas engine is silky, smooth, almost Honda like in its smoothness while running up to a shift point.  It will run on electric motor only up to 30 mph which greatly helps in the overall MPG.

The ride is good, I’m not a fan of the amplified bob and weave and tipsy feeling on curves of SUVs.  It is present here, but no where as obnoxious as my neighbors Tahoe. (I can’t wait for that hybrid system to show up in the Mercury Milan this spring as it could well be the new car for the better half.)  The mileage on this ride was affected by the A/C that was on the entire time, but still respectable for an SUV.  Mileage display: 25.2

Escape Hybrid dash panel and hybrid operation information display
Escape Hybrid dash panel and "hybrid operation information" display

 Ford Flex.  I understand this CUV better after spending some time in it.  The final product does differ from the “Fairlane” concept car on which it is based.  More in the detail execution yet kept the shape and high style nicely.  It will seat 7.  It has the character of the Scion xb and I see it as being the one that will get all the customizing done to it of the Ford CUV fleet.  Even the leather seats on the Limited are perforated and reminded me of a Louis Vuitton bag…and that was intentional.

Flex interior...check out the LVish perforation pattern
Flex interior...check out the LV'ish perforation pattern

Driving it was interesting. Not like a regular SUV or mini-van, but I would not call it car like. At 4800 lbs that is a lot of vehicle for even a large V6 to haul around.  It is 1,500 lbs lighter than the Expedition/Navigator and is aimed at that customer that needs seating for 7 in a trimmer package.  Acceleration was good, not terrific, but it will hold its own in traffic.  Once up to speed and the 6 speed automatic tranny slips into its highest gear it is actually a very quiet and smooth ride.  In urban traffic you do notice the weight, it feels leaden compared to a normal car and you can tell you have a lot of vehicle behind you.

Up close and personal Ford Flex as the current 3 bar grill.
Up close and personal Ford Flex as the current 3 bar grill found on all Fords.

Mileage, this was funny and the Ford PR guy riding with me was a good sport.  I hit the info button to bring up the mileage display.  Click on the info which reveals138 miles with an average of 14.4MPG on the display.  I looked at him and said “shame on you…you guys keep exclaiming 24MPG”.  He said “that number is affected by driving style”.  True.  4800 lbs empty still needs a lot of gas to haul it around.   I wonder how its MPG will be when you add 7 people and luggage for a long weekend road trip.

I have to say I do like the Flex.  I think if it had hit the market 2 years ago when gas was just a bit more than $2/gallon this would have been a grand slam homer for Ford.  With today’s shrinking auto market I suspect this will be more of a niche player for Ford rather than the mass market auto they had hoped for.

Lincoln MKS.  I told the rep when I was walking to the car that I have been a fan of Lincoln, especially the early 60’s for ages, but I just don’t know what to make of this car.  In the pre-drive showing we were told this car is aimed clearly at the mid-luxury segment occupied by the Lexus GS350.  In looking at it up close I still keep thinking it is hitting a little lower at the Acura line and is where the Mercury flagship should be.  Lincoln for years was the top of the luxury market. If they are going to go through the expense of reinventing the line they need to go for the gusto like Caddy did with its CTS/STS series.

The actual drive was really nice in the MKS.  It is based on the Volvo S80 floor pan as used in the Taurus/Taurus-X/Sable/Flex but it seems so much more refined.  Solid.  Stable.  It has a lot more pep due largely to a curb weight of 4300 lbs and a slightly larger 3.7L V6 than the Flex. (Curb weight drops to 4100 lbs in front wheel drive configuration).  This version had the All Wheel Drive, so torque steer which is usually a problem with high torque motors in a Front Wheel Drive only application, was pretty much non-existent.  The ride was really sweet, not floaty like the old Town Car.  Certainly as taught as the last DTS I rented, only without the thumps when you hit little bumps.  There was some tire noise, but we were driving sans radio so I suspect if it was on one would not have even noticed that at all.

Sitting in the MKS was like melting into your favorite cozy chair.  Not cramped or claustrophobic, but very nice, comfortable and cozy.  All swathed in light warmed toned leather and real wood.  Even all the gizmos sat comfortably in the background ready for when you needed them, but not interrupting the ambiance of the cabin.  The buckets were really comfy just the fight amount of length and height.  With all the fine tuning adjustments I could see hunkering down for a cross country drive and walk out feeling alive at the end of each day.

I have to admit I still don’t know what to make of the car, all the pieces and bits that make a great car are there.  For me what it is missing is the passion, emotional triggers that one gets from a terrific car to make you fall in love with it like the 1963Continental possessed. At 37K it is really a very high content car that could very well be competitive in the class.  MPG display: 16.8.

The best quote of the day.  One of the traditional media guys showed up in blue blazer, tie the works.  The rest of us were all pretty casually dressed.  He said to one of the Ford guys in a suit “I guess I’m a little over dressed”.  The Ford guy didn’t miss a beat “In LA jeans with a crease pressed in is over dressed”.  I had to laugh…must have been a transplant that doesn’t get out much nor watched an industry award show.  Dang…we know couture and due it well when needed.

As always, all pics by me, some are representational photos, others are my arty stuff.  More can be found in my Ford 2009 Ride Drive flickr set.

One thought on “Ford Takes the LA Beaches and aims for a little more.”

  1. Very nice. Three years ago somehow my incredible lack of status as a blogger got me invited out to a Cadillac media test drive event on the old El Toro air base. We got to zip around the runways in a variety of really expensive STS goodness. It was like Disneyland’s Autopia ride for grownups.

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