DETROIT (Feb. 26, 2001)—After two delays, Ford Motor Co. finally is shipping the 2002 Ford Explorer to car dealers.
Stung by costly and image-damaging launches of the Ford Escape and the Ford Focus, plus a disastrous Firestone tire recall that further sullied the Explorer´s reputation, Ford decided it is better to be safe than sorry.
To protect the Ford Explorer from embarrassment, the company slowed the launch build, subjected production units to time-consuming engineering analyses and asked Las Vegas taxi fleets to rack up miles on 2002 units.
`"We paid excruciating attention to detail. Much more than we have ever done before," said Gurminder Bedi, Ford vice president of North American truck.
Ford´s paranoia is because of the Explorer´s critical role in the company´s product portfolio. The Explorer is a major source of the auto maker´s profits and is an image leader for its Ford Division.
In addition, Ford wants an all-but-flawless 2002 sport-utility because the Explorer was tarnished by last year´s huge recall by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. which involved 6.5 million P-metric Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT light truck tires. Many of them came mounted as original equipment on Explorers.
The Explorer was planned as a 2001 model. But Ford decided last May and again in September to delay the launch to improve quality.
``It is the major product launch this year," said Richard Beattie, Ford vice president of investor relations. "The largest-selling five-passenger vehicle in the United States is not the Toyota Camry. It is the Ford Explorer."
Ford sold 445,157 Explorers in 2000.
Overcoming tire recall
Ford is focusing on a range of new features in the 2002 Explorer to overcome any backlash from last summer´s Firestone tire recall.
"We have been tracking the Firestone recall since early August," said Jim O´Connor, Ford Division president. "Clearly, it had an impact. But that is our challenge, to really renew the confidence in the consumer. And what better opportunity do we have than an all-new vehicle?´´
In a 27-city car dealership training tour, Ford is highlighting the Explorer´s third seat, smoother ride and independent rear suspension.
On Thursday, Feb. 22, Ford began shipping the 2002 Explorer to dealers, who have been taking orders since Jan. 1 and are now authorized to deliver the units to customers. Ford holds 75,000 dealer orders for the 2002 model.
But dealer stocks will not begin growing until mid to late March, Mr. O´Connor said. The advertising launch is scheduled in early April.
The slow ramp-up and limited product availability likely will result in a year-over-year decline in Explorer sales in February and March, he said.
Ford is obsessing over the Explorer launch after admitting that recalls and product introduction delays cost the company an estimated $1 billion last year. For example, the Ford Escape was recalled five times after it was introduced in August.
Ford revamped its product launch practices, Mr. Bedi said, and slowed production ramp-up while running engineering analyses on production parts. Typically, prototype parts are tested.
"We actually took the Job 1-level production units and reran the engineering test sequence," Mr. Bedi said. "That is one of the reasons it took so long. When we found issues, we changed the design or the process."
To further flag problems, Ford placed 2002 units into fleets throughout the country.
Company employees also racked up 50,000 to 70,000 miles per vehicle scouting for problems.
Every member of the Ford Division National Dealer Council tested a model.
Ms. Connelly writes for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.