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Ford jury remains out on front-drive Falcon
New Ford Australia president confirms a front-wheel drive Falcon is under study
14 Oct 2008
A FRONT-WHEEL drive Falcon remains the subject of intensive ongoing market research by Ford Australia, which will make a decision on the drivetrain configuration of its next-generation volume-seller in the “near future”.
That is the word from the Blue Oval’s new president in Australia, Marin Burela, who jetted in from London the night before last Thursday’s Sydney motor show opening to present Ford’s redesigned entry-level model, the European-built Fiesta, which will be sourced from Thailand in 2010.
The Broadmeadows-based brand’s new Croatian-born boss, who is in awe of the new FG Falcon G6E Turbo he drove during a two-day visit to Australia the previous week, is a 25-year Ford veteran who describes himself as a Geelong guy.
In his first local interview after introducing himself to Australian journalists at the Paris motor show on October 2, Mr Burela said Australia’s 48-year-old Falcon nameplate has “a special meaning” for him, but refused to commit to its traditional rear-drive layout beyond the current FG generation.
“I think rear-wheel drive has been very important to our customers in the past,” he said. “The question is: ‘Will it continue to be important to our customers going forward?’ And the honest answer is we don’t know.
“We are studying that, we’re looking at that. The one thing we do know is everywhere around the world, and Australia is not immune to that, people’s preferences are changing.
“When my father bought his Falcon in 1972 it had to be a Falcon because he was towing. The world has now changed, so what we as Ford Motor Company now need to do is be aware of those changes in terms of changing preferences and make sure that our products are directly at the heart of where their needs and wants are.
“If that means rear-wheel drive we’ll go back and look at rear-wheel drive. If that means front-wheel drive we’ll go back and look at front-wheel drive. So the answer is we haven’t made a decision one way or the other. It’s a work in progress.” Mr Burela conceded that decision would be made at a global level, as FoMoCo considers a GM-style platform-sharing program that would involve vehicles as diverse as the Falcon, Territory, Mustang and Crown Victoria being based on the same worldwide chassis architecture.
But he stressed Australia would play a role in the decision-making process, just as it did in his previous role, as global small-car development chief, with the Fiesta.
“I think the tremendous advantage that we have in the global Ford world is that we all have a say and we all have a vote. Having come from the world of the development where these decisions are being made for the last four years, as we designed the Fiesta we weren’t ignoring Australia,” he said.
“Even though Australia, with its existing or current Fiesta, was only selling circa 500 cars a month, when we were designing and developing the new Fiesta Australia was not out of our thinking. Why? Because we knew that to have a global vehicle, to have a global presence, to be genuinely successful as you move around the world you cannot ignore the respective markets around the world.
“I think the same will apply as we start to move forward in terms of decisions on whether there will be a global rear-wheel drive platform, whether there won’t.
“All of the customer markets will have the appropriate level of input into those decisions. I feel very fortunate that I’m part of that team that is making those decisions and I know that my vote in that will be equally as important as those from other parts of the company.” Asked how long Ford had been researching drivetrain configurations for its large cars, new Ford Australia vice-president of marketing and sales Beth Donovan said: “We have been all around the globe for two years.
Left: Ford Australia president Marin Burela and Ford Motor Company president Alan Mulally.
“So while we continue to study that, you’d be surprised at how many customers – doesn’t matter if they’re Ford-branded or owners of other brands – are not familiar with the drivetrain of the vehicle that they drive.
“It’s been an interesting phenomenon because … utility has become something that you get from other rear-drive applications. Forty years ago you really only had a couple different ways you could get it – now you have trucks, you have small SUVs.” Mr Burela added that the rear-drive Falcon was a cornerstone of Ford’s success in Australia, where it underpinned the success of the Falcon Ute, the FPV performance brand and the Territory SUV, but he would not guarantee a rear-drive future for Falcon.
“I don’t think that we’re at the end of the journey in terms of research. It’s still a work in progress. The jury is still very much out. The reality is that for us and for our competitors, having a very strong RWD vehicle in Australia has been a cornerstone of our success over the years.
“But what I think we do need to do is to go back and do a reality check and say well where does that go in the future, is that still the way our consumers think as they move forward.
“I think people now are looking at more lifestyle-type vehicles. They look at transportation and mobility in a very different way to the way they looked at it 10, 15 or even five years ago.” “The only car that I ever knew when I was growing up in Australia was in fact Falcon. There was the Holden in those days and there was the Falcon. They were the two cars. It has a special meaning to me, having grown up in a Ford family, so to speak.
“The world has changed and it continues to change, but does that mean there isn’t a place for a vehicle like Falcon? In short to medium-term I think there’s a place for Falcon. What we need to do is make sure Falcon goes out there and stands on its own two feet and captures what is rightfully its fair share of the large-car segment and that’s what we’re going to be doing as we move forward,” he said.
The prospect of future generations of Ford’s Falcon being based on a global platform that could be front or all-wheel drive, which is cheaper to produce and more fuel-efficient, is not new but was recently confirmed as an option for the next-generation Falcon due in 2013 by Ford’s global president and CEO Alan Mulally, who visited Australia in late August.
“Rear-wheel drive has some unique capabilities, but it will be yet to be determined whether we keep our unique rear-wheel drive or whether the bigger sedans will need to (be) all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive,” said Mr Mulally.
Mr Burela reiterated Mr Mulally’s view that Falcon production in Australia was safe in the short to medium-term, but that a rear-drive layout might not be a prerequisite.
“We’ve invested a lot of money into Australia, into its manufacturing facilities, into its product development capability and in vehicles like Falcon and Territory, and we aren’t going to let that go lightly because it’s been very successful – it’s been the cornerstone of our Australian business base.
“But having said that, that is one stake in he ground … that is one part of our foundation that we build our house on. The rest of the house has to be a complementation of product that absolutely meets the needs of the changing marketplace in Australia.
“The heartbeat is there, now we’re building on that foundation all of the other products that in fact fit the requirement of Australia. Our priority at this point in time is to deliver success with what we have. We have a very fresh and vibrant product line-up and our focus together with the rest of the team in Australia will be to go out an communicate that with consumers.
“Our dealers are just so excited with what we have in terms of the line-up that we owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves to go out there are deliver success with what we have and that’s our priority certainly over the next 12 to 18 months.
“And while we’re doing that, in parallel we’ll be evaluating what are the other opportunities, what happens to the platform and where do we take the Australian portfolio of goods are as we move forward into the 2012 and 2013s.
“We’ll come to that conclusion some time in the near future.” Even more worryingly for Ford performance fans, Mr Burela would not to commit to a V8 future for the Falcon in its current FG generation – beyond the arrival of the imported Duratec V6 in 2010, when Euro IV emissions standards come into effect.
Asked if the current 5.4-litre V8 would be available for the duration of the FG’s lifespan, Mr Burela said: “We haven’t made any decision. Certainly when I look at the performance cars out there and the one that I drove out here last week (a G6E Turbo), I was just completely taken aback by it. It’s a fantastic vehicle, a fantastic engine. What’s that mean going forward? Too early to say.” Ford Australia’s newly appointed product development director Russell Christophers was similarly evasive. “If the customer wants it, we’ll continue to provide it,” he said.
In other Ford news, Mr Burela said Ford was “continually reviewing” the size of its workforce in Australia, but stopped short of confirming the company was about to shed about 300 white-collar workers, as revealed by GoAuto last week, in addition to the 300-350 voluntary blue-collar redundancies it announced on August 22.
“Right now a reality check tells us that demand is lower than our built-in capacity is, so we’re reviewing it to meet demand,” he said in Sydney.
GoAuto understands the first round of voluntary white-collar redundancies will be offered to staff at Ford Australia this week.
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