MERKENICH, Germany - At the Geneva auto show in March, Ford Motor Co. took the unusual step of displaying a group of raw vehicle chassis prominently on its stand. James Donaldson, president of Ford of Europe, told reporters Ford wanted to emphasize one of the basic characteristics of its products: driving dynamics.
Phil Martens, 38, chief engineer of vehicle and chassis engineering for Ford's Small and Medium Vehicle Center in Merkenich, Germany, is the man whose mission it is to give Ford products a distinctive feel.
Martens subscribes to Ford CEO Jac Nasser's theory that Ford products should pass 'the 50-meter test.' That is, anybody driving a Ford should know within about 50 meters exactly what he or she is driving.
Premium brands, BMW and Jaguar for instance, always have had this feeling. Martens sees no reason why a mass-market brand such as Ford cannot be just as distinct.
'The Ford Focus has that 50-meter feeling of competence,' he says.
Driving dynamics in Ford vehicles must achieve a balance of four elements: precision, control, stability and comfort. Ford will add these qualities in different quantities, depending upon the function of the vehicle.
Thus, a sporty Puma will be tuned for maximum precision, at the expense of some comfort. A minivan, on the other hand, will be tuned toward comfort.
Martens mastered the art of tweaking suspensions during his tenure in North America. He was vehicle development manager for all small-car programs in the United States, and spent time with Mazda in the process. Later he was chief program engineer for Ford's large-car program in Dearborn. While there he worked with large rear-wheel-drive vehicles such as the Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria, polar opposites of the small cars Europeans favor.
He was able to recalibrate the suspension of the Lincoln Town Car when the design was freshened for the 1998 model year. By dialing out a bit of the big sedan's pillowy ride, he improved precision and handling enormously.
He arrived in Europe in time to participate in the fine tuning on the Focus. He is now working on the remodeled 2000 Fiesta, scheduled to hit the market this autumn. He is proud of the Focus' control blade rear suspension, which he feels achieved the benefits of independent rear suspension cost-effectively.
LEAVE THE LAB
When it comes to engineering suspensions, Martens believes there is no substitute for getting behind the wheel and driving a car. Once he is on the road or test track, he can quickly compute what is right and wrong with a car and how best to fix it.
Unlike other Ford development engineers, the chassis engineers cannot simply rely on customer research. Martens finds customers have difficulty describing specific attributes of driving dynamics. They simply know what they like and do not like.
Getting the combination correct means asking the right questions about ride, handling, stability, braking and so on, and knowing how to interpret consumers' answers.
Martens is advancing rapidly at Ford. He moved to Germany in late 1997. He now reports to Burt McNeal, engineering director for the Small and Medium Vehicle Center in Merkenich.
Martens relishes the keen competition he finds in the European auto industry.
'I wanted to get into the competitive environment in Europe,' he says. 'It was an opportunity to move forward in some of the toughest markets. Here it's so competitive (that) you have to be extraordinarily nimble.'