SOURCE: Detroit News
MORE HEREBringing up the rear: Ford to revive rear-wheel drive in U.S.
Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. is bringing rear-wheel-drive development back to the United States from Australia. The automaker also has green-lighted a vehicle platform that will provide the basis for a new generation of rear-wheel-drive cars, according to sources familiar with Ford's plans.
Australia, where such vehicles remain popular, had emerged as Ford's center for rear-wheel-drive development. But changing economics have convinced the company to bring the program back to Dearborn.
Sources said the new rear-wheel-drive platform will provide the underlying architecture for an all-new Ford Mustang, as well as for new Ford and Lincoln sedans. The same platform will be used for a next-generation Falcon in Australia. Product codes already exist for these cars, but it will still be about four years before they arrive in showrooms.
Ford would not comment on moving the rear-wheel-drive program, but said Australia will continue to play an important role in the company's product development operations.
"On rear-wheel-drive, as we have already stated, we are working on a new platform and portfolio of vehicles," Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global head of product development, said Friday. "We will have more to say in the future."
Analysts say a solid rear-wheel-drive offering is vital to any company that wants to be a truly global automobile manufacturer.
"Americans have had 28-plus years of being hit over the head with the idea that front-wheel-drive is better, but there are segments of the market -- here and abroad -- that want rear-wheel-drive," said Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLP in Birmingham. "They need it for China, they need it for the Middle East and they need it for North America if they want to sell to certain enthusiasts."
And he said there are good financial reasons for developing the new platform here -- the weak U.S. dollar, for one.
"You don't save any money with Australian dollars anymore," Hall said. "There are economies of scale in engineering too."
Most cars sold in the United States prior to the 1980s were rear-wheel-drive, and fans still believe it offers a sportier ride and the opportunity to design more aggressive-looking cars. But front-wheel-drive, which offers better fuel economy and surer handling, has since become the norm, both here and abroad.
But the success of domestic rear-wheel-drive offerings from Chrysler LLC, such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, has convinced automakers that there is still a market for these beefier rides.
General Motors Corp. offers rear-wheel-drive products, too, including the ever-popular Chevrolet Corvette and the new Pontiac G8, and others are under development -- though some executives have expressed concerns about the impact of new federal fuel-economy standards on those programs.
German brands like BMW and Mercedes are big on rear-wheel-drive, as are some exotic European marques like Ferrari.
Ford also sells rear-wheel-drive cars in the United States, including the popular Mustang and the more workaday Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car. Production of those big sedans is slated to end by 2011, leaving a gap in Ford's lineup that the company is eager to fill with sportier offerings.
The Interceptor concept that Ford displayed at the Detroit auto show in 2007 could well be the shape of things to come, though not necessarily the size.
The back-to-the-future muscle car was a real crowd-pleaser. According to Ford sources, CEO Alan Mulally was dismayed to learn that the company he had just been hired to lead had no plans to actually build it. Since then, work began on a production vehicle that will have a similar look, but will be a bit smaller than the concept in order to achieve better gas mileage.
But Hall said Ford could also bring the next-generation Falcon to the United States, given the company's push to simplify its global vehicle lineup.