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Has Eco-Boasting Turned Ford’s EcoBoost into Eco-Toast?

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The Ford Motor Company had the right idea a few years back when the economy was collapsing, GM and Chrysler were going bankrupt, and the House that Henry Built wasn’t far behind. In that dark hour, the company and its new boss Alan Mulally:

1) borrowed a crapload of money, fortuitously timed because they managed to do so a veritable day before the banks turned out the lights;

2) unloaded everything (Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo) that wasn’t Ford or Lincoln; and

3) committed to building a seriously lighter, more economical fleet of vehicles that used less gasoline.

Alan Mulally (left) at the Paris Motor Show in 2010. (Flickr/Ford in Europe)Thanks to serious European engineering facilities, which had for decades designed leaner, better handling automobiles, mostly for the world beyond U.S. shores, Ford could get to this less bibulous future in America fast. In the process, they’d finally deploy the money-saving “one world” strategy Ford’s leaders (and come to think of it, all automotive CEOs) have been touting since the 1970s. Today, they're calling it One Ford 2.0.

The central truth of the automobile industry is that cars cost less to build not only when you make more of them but also when they share more parts with other cars you’re building; the single, best outcome being selling tons of exactly the same thing in as many places as possible and then lots of several something elses only slightly different. The American Ford Escort of 1981 was meant to be one of the first to partake of this obviously efficient concept, a world car. But in the end it shared surprisingly few of its parts with European Escorts. Egoists in Ford’s North American operation: 1. Money saved: nil.

From the Ford Fiesta launch in 2008. (Flickr/Ford Asia Pacific)The notion of American exceptionalism died hard at Ford (and it’s not fully dead yet -- if you’ve driven the still-fat and appalling Explorer, you know what I mean). But with the near collapse of all that the automobile industry held near and dear, things have changed a lot and the new Ford Fiesta, Escape, Focus, C-Max and Fusion are the proof. Fruits of Ford’s new post-crash consciousness, they’re European-style cars, efficiently packaged and perfectly handsome as modern cars go. They’re smaller and feel lighter on their feet as a result. They possess ride and handling qualities of the first European order, a very good thing, if you like cars that ride well and handle really, really nicely. If the Explorer and the F-150 are Ford’s yin, these are its newfound yang. 

They also stake a claim to serious efficiency. While the C-Max is a straight up Prius fighter, available as a hybrid or, even better, a very progressive plug-in hybrid, the rest are outfitted with smaller-than-usual-displacement, turbocharged engines, all of which Ford places for marketing purposes under its “EcoBoost” umbrella. The name of the newly minted sub-brand for Ford power-plants is supposed to bespeak the green thinking behind a great new day in internal combustion devices, the power of bigger engines from smaller more fuel efficient ones. And that would be the greatest news of all -- if it didn’t turn out that these cars get actively crappy gas mileage.

The European Ford C-Max. (Flickr/M 93)Having just spent a few months driving Ford's new products, I gotta tell you, I loved them all initially. But that was before I’d run through a tank of gas and found out each and every one got seriously worse fuel economy than claimed in widely placed ads quoting their EPA highway mileage ratings. There’s no denying, I felt violated.

A little about me. My standard driving loop tends to around 50 percent highway, 25 percent urban, 25 percent local suburban. In a typical week spent driving a new car, I often achieve a consumption average pretty close to the EPA highway mileage figure (knowledge made easy with now omnipresent on-board fuel economy computers). As a wise man once said, "Actual mileage may vary." I know this. And I know that the government mileage tests were created in consultation with the automobile companies, who know very well how to gin them to get the most improbably high figures. But, still, I can usually touch the highway number if I work at it.

Driving around 75 new cars each year for 25 years I’ve become reasonably adept at hyper-miling, that is adopting strategies and techniques in regard to throttle application, gearbox use, and general road behavior to achieve maximum mpg. So I was alarmed when I first realized that first new Ford I was driving couldn’t come close to its claimed highway figure. Alarm turned to hurt, sadness and, yes, even a little bitterness following the stream-of-duff, observed economy figures I subsequently encountered in other, new smaller Fords. In fairness, I should mention, my first disappointment, an EcoBoost Focus, was driven several days on the mean hilly streets of San Francisco, with an inevitable hit to its economy. But these numbers are poor across the board.

Car Talk’s Official Informal Observed Fuel Economy, Ford Motor Co., (2011-13 model years)More about these figures: the C-Max is only sold as a hybrid (or plug-in hybrid,) so the just under 35 mpg figure, while okay on its face, is actually far less impressive than what I’ve seen with the Toyota Prius, a car that for my money the C-Max betters in every other way, but especially in driving fun. Like all the Fords I’ve driven in the last 18 months, the C-Max is a pleasure to drive. But using every trick I know, giving it all I had had, no matter what I tried, I still couldn’t coax the mileage higher.

Ford had a better idea with these cars, but they appear to have failed to complete the thought, or maybe they’ve simply failed to execute it. Good as their cars are, they demand one accept a serious fuel economy penalty for the privilege of driving them. Most probably that’s not going to happen as often as Ford would like. And, while we’re venting, it’s true: MyFord Touch, the company’s roundly criticized touch-screen interface for most secondary controls, is still far more trouble than it’s worth.

So, nice plan, Ford. Missed it by that much. Now it’s back to the drawing boards for you.
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