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Detroit show: Ford ‘explores’ new Territory

Explore the unknown: Ford's American Explorer concept could be a precurser to the next Aussie Territory.

Ford investigates design and engineering synergies for its next wave of SUVs

15 Jan 2008

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in DETROIT

FORD is poised to leverage Australian engineering and design input as it prepares the replacement for both the Falcon-based Territory and Explorer SUV.

Prompting speculation is the news that the Explorer America Concept – one of the stars on the Ford stand at the Detroit motor show this week – employs a monocoque body.

Since its highly successful inception in 1990, both generations of the Explorer SUV have been derived from the body-on-chassis light truck sold in North America as the Ranger.

However, while Ford says the Explorer America is a lightweight ecological SUV concept designed to gauge US consumer reaction to a possible move towards a more car-like vehicle, it is adamant that this is only an indication as to the direction the next-generation SUV may head in.

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“This is not a teaser for the next Explorer,” emphasised Peter Horbury, who is in charge of Ford’s US design.

“It is a concept, just to see how – with the powertrain story we have – if we can still retain the degree of toughness in the design for an SUV of the future.

“That will be the question that we will ask ourselves over the next few years – is it a crossover or is it an SUV.” If it happens, a move to monocoque for the Explorer replacement suggests that the once-beleaguered company – which, according to CEO Alan Mulally, is now on track to show a profit in 2009 after an intense period of rationalisation and restructuring – will be actively weighing up the pros and cons of developing the next-generation Territory and Explorer together.

Speaking to the media in Detroit this week, Mr Mulally added weight to Ford Australia’s increasing role in the development of the company’s rear-wheel drive vehicles by revealing how globally interactive its operations have become, even if he refused to reveal exactly how.

“You can imagine the collaboration that we are going to have across the world on that … and Australia is going to play a very important part in that future portfolio,” he said.

“We haven’t decided that exactly yet, but as we integrate the resources, one of the things we have to decide is who takes the lead on each of the platforms.

“But no matter what, combining the resources on the larger vehicles … is going to be an absolutely competitive advantage, because we are absolutely world-class at it.” With Ford openly deliberating a lighter and greener Explorer, it is possible that the Explorer and the Territory may dip from the same engineering gene pool.

However, while they may end up sharing vital platform and drivetrain components underneath – including the new-generation V6s destined for the next Falcon after the existing in-line six-cylinder engine is discontinued sometime in 2010 – the SUVs on both sides of the Pacific will probably look different.

Asked whether a future monocoque Explorer will automatically mean that it will be related to the next Territory or vice-versa, Mr Horbury was remarkably frank.

“Of course, a monocoque will make it much more feasible,” he revealed.

“You know, the essence is, where the engineering is done, that’s where the design will be, just for the sake of resources, and being able to work with engineers and designers like that.

“(Ford Australia) will have a vested interest in that type of vehicle, obviously.

“We input from many different projects from many different (global Ford) studios, so we look for ideas from outside of our studios, and likewise Europe gets some from us, and Australia has been very active, with the design team there sending their ideas. We are one team working globally now.

“Scott (Strong), who is running the team (in Australia) is in constant touch, in the normal ways that we use the resources globally for any of our projects.” Nevertheless, Mr Horbury wanted to make it clear that any move to a monocoque was dependent on the public reception that the Explorer America receives at the Detroit show.

“There is no decision (as yet) taken on that. It is just an idea being tested in public – how an SUV should be like – and that the public will have their say on what they want,” he said. “But we’re still thinking about it.” Visually, with its sliding rear doors, exotic materials, extra-large wheels and futuristic interior, the Explorer America is a six-seater flight-of-fancy concept car.

It is powered by either a choice of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine or a turbo-charged 3.5-litre V6 – with both featuring direct petrol injection that Ford has dubbed EcoBoost.

Destined for a host of Fords in the near future, this results in a 20 per cent reduction in fuel consumption and a 15 per cent drop in CO2 emissions, all while delivering performance to V6 and V8 levels respectively.

Contributing to the Explorer America’s efficiency is electric power steering, as well as a significant weight drop over the existing production Explorer.

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