Ford CVT project delayed

DETROIT - Ford Motor Co.'s plan to add continuously variable transmissions to its powertrain lineup has been postponed by more than a year.

A joint venture with ZF Friedrichshafen AG to build CVTs at a former Ford Motor transmission plant in Batavia, Ohio, had aimed to start production by late this year. That date has shifted to sometime in 2003, said Stanley Meyer, director of sales and planning for ZF Batavia LLC, launched at the beginning of 1999.

The delay means Ford Motor, which had been among the leaders in the drive to use the fuel-saving transmission, will be passed by competitors such as Saturn and Audi in putting CVTs into the marketplace. Honda has offered a CVT on the Civic since 1996.

Officials for the joint venture had originally predicted that 25 percent to 30 percent of Ford Motor's North American small cars would have CVTs by 2003 and that the Batavia plant, 51 percent owned by ZF, would produce 1 million CVTs by 2005.

"It's running somewhat late," Meyer said. "One of our major customers has changed their vehicle plans a number of times. Vehicles have gotten somewhat heavier, and this transmission doesn't have the torque capacity to do all of the vehicles that were in the original plan. And then the technology is not progressing as rapidly as we originally planned."

A Ford Motor spokesman wouldn't discuss program development timing but said the automaker considers the CVT project on track.

Meyer said the biggest technology barrier has been developing the CVT's drive devices for high-volume manufacturing. Unlike a conventional automatic that changes gears based on pre-determined gear ratios, a CVT uses a belt-and-pulley system to change ratios seamlessly.

Selling points

Compared with a four-speed automatic, the transmission offers fuel economy gains of up to 10 percent and improved acceleration of 5 percent, Meyer said. It also can be calibrated to give a specific drive performance - sporty, perhaps - that is unique to each application.

CVTs have faltered in the North American market. Sales were slow on an earlier CVT offered on the Subaru Justy from 1988 to 1992. But automakers, encouraged by improved technology and a call for better fuel economy, have renewed their efforts. Saturn is offering a CVT on its new Vue and Honda sells the gearbox on the Civic HX and GX and on the hybrid Insight. Audi's new A4 is offered with a CVT, and other automakers are considering the technology.

Still, the delay doesn't surprise one market watcher.

The transmission hasn't been a rousing success at consumer clinics held by Ford and ZF, said Eric Fedewa, director of global powertrain forecasting at CSM Worldwide Inc. in Northville, Mich. Some consumers preferred the feeling of gear changes to the smooth acceleration inherent with CVTs. Engineers have experimented with programming artificial steps into the CVT to mimic a traditional automatic, he said.

Viewing the Vue

Ford Motor's program cycle also could be delaying the introduction, Fedewa said. In the meantime, program managers likely will evaluate how buyers react to the CVT in the Saturn Vue.

"They might be sitting back waiting to see how consumers accept that transmission and how well it does durability-wise before they go into production with it," Fedewa said.

The Vue's performance should give ZF and Ford Motor a better idea of the CVT's marketability, Meyer said. Ford Motor says it plans to use the transmission in small to mid-sized cars and smaller sport-utilities with mid-to-low engine displacement. It could end up on the next Focus and Mondeo.

ZF is working with other manufacturers on CVT programs that will be supplied out of the Batavia plant, but Ford Motor will be the first to market, Meyer said. A developing agreement with Fiat was thwarted by GM's alliance with the Italian automaker last year.

Batavia continues to manufacture about 350,000 four-speed automatic transmissions for the Ford Escape, Mercury Cougar, Mazda 626 and other vehicles. The facility could produce 500,000 CVTs by 2006 and 1 million total transmissions by 2008 or 2010, he said. The 1 million mark originally was expected by 2005.

Said Fedewa: "Their capacity to produce CVTs at 500,000 a year will probably be in place by 2005, but whether the market will actually take that many, I would hesitate there. It's kind of an unknown quantity right now, as far as how strong sales will be."

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com

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