Ford: We'll learn from launch recalls
Escape issues are deja vu from '02
DETROIT -- Four recalls on the redesigned 2013 Ford Escape crossover, on the heels of embarrassing technology glitches and delays introducing other important models, have raised concerns about Ford's launch processes.
Ford said last week that a software glitch was responsible for engines in at least nine Escapes and Fusion sedans overheating and catching fire. Ford previously had asked owners to park those cars while Ford sought the cause of the overheating.
"The key for us is obviously to do better on our quality results, which we're going to do, but not get conservative. We're going to maintain technology leadership," Raj Nair, Ford vice president for global product development, told Automotive News.
Nair said Ford has made adjustments in response to the defects and customer feedback, but he and other company executives declined to specify how any upcoming launches have been affected.
"Certainly every launch gets some changes in process from the prior one," Nair said. "Some of the areas that we've experienced [problems] in the Escape and Fusion -- certainly we've paid extra attention to on the following vehicles."
As Ford rushes to fix the problems, dealers are charged with damage control. Many are bending over backward, with help from the factory, to ensure that new models and features intended to draw customers away from rival brands don't end up driving them back to the competition.
"We're doing everything we can to be helpful in any way to make them completely satisfied," said Gus Knezevich, a sales manager at The Ford Store of San Leandro near San Francisco Bay. "We're just starting to get real hot with the Escape, so for us as a dealer it hurts."
Knezevich said customers generally have been understanding, if frustrated, about having to take a new vehicle in for repairs repeatedly.
Ford's recent launch problems began with MyFord Touch, an infotainment and controls system the company introduced in 2010. Owners complained that the systems' touch screens were overly complicated or frequently froze. Consumer Reports has said MyFord Touch "stinks."
"Being on the leading edge of technology, you're going to be on the leading edge of complaints that previously didn't exist," Nair said. "You're not going to get complaints about voice control if you don't have voice control."
Those problems and dissatisfaction with rough shifting of new dual-clutch transmissions in the Ford Fiesta and Focus have caused Ford's ratings on the annual Initial Quality Study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates to plunge in recent years. Ford last week began giving customers a software update -- the second one this year -- aimed at improving the system and recently said it would extend the warranty covering it.
The issues Ford is grappling with today appear more rooted in the development process of each vehicle and its complex electronics rather than shoddy assembly at the plant, said Dave Sullivan, a product analyst with AutoPacific.
"They fixed a lot of the problems with loose parts and things not being secured on the vehicles," problems that plagued Ford and other Detroit automakers in the 1980s, Sullivan said. "Now we're talking about software problems."
Ford then experienced some delays rolling out the 2011 Fiesta and 2012 Focus, and had spot shortages of some powertrain offerings in the Explorer last year. This year's two biggest launches, the 2013 Fusion and Escape, have had multiple recalls -- two for the Fusion and four for the Escape.
Twice, Ford told Escape owners to stop driving the vehicles immediately because of a fire risk and offered them free replacements until a repair could be developed and made.
"On this latest recall, we actually notified [customers] before we had the fix identified," Nair said, "and we knew that was going to cause a lot of scrutiny, but we also knew it was the right thing to do."
Ford said it would begin fixing Escapes and Fusions affected by the latest recall this week. Dealers will be able to update the cars' software to manage engine temperatures so that a loss of coolant-system pressure does not lead to a fire.
Ford may have learned from Toyota Motor Corp., which knew of incidents of alleged sudden acceleration but held off for four months -- until it could come up with a fix -- before issuing a recall in 2010.
So far the publicity surrounding the Ford recalls does not seem to have dented Escape sales. The redesigned crossover was first recalled in July, but Escape sales from July 1 through November rose 7 percent from a year earlier to 113,710. So far this year Ford has sold 240,877 Escapes, including the prior-generation version, making it the company's second best-selling nameplate after the F-series pickup.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally, in a November interview, acknowledged that some recent launches have been problematic. He said many of the issues stem from suppliers trying to increase output quickly after big cutbacks during the recession.
"What's going on is we are ramping up production and we are introducing more new models than Ford ever has, and that's a lot of work," Mulally said. "We are learning a lot from that, so we're continuing to refine our product development system with big processes as well as the launch processes."
The latest Escape problems are particularly irksome to Ford, which vowed to do better after the Escape's 2002 bumpy launch included five recalls in the car's first six months in showrooms.
"One bad launch has a knock-on effect on other launches," Chairman Bill Ford said at the time. "Resources are pulled off other programs and that affects them."
Executives began a number of initiatives aimed at preventing such mistakes in the future. And for much of the decade since then, rollouts were smoother and Ford's quality ratings surged.
Sullivan, the AutoPacific analyst, said that all automakers experience problems with new-model introductions but that Ford has to do a better job of catching them before sending the vehicles to dealers. Nonetheless, if Ford gets the issues under control and goes out of its way to minimize inconvenience to customers, Sullivan said, the company will not suffer in the long term.
"People's memories of recalls are short-lived," he said. "The last Escape was able to shake all the concerns that it had at launch and people ended up buying them in droves."
Bradford Wernle contributed to this report
You can reach Nick Bunkley at email@example.com. -- Follow Nick on