- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

DEARBORN, Mich. Ford Motor Co. isn't saying exactly how it plans to wring better fuel economy out of the 800,000 sport utility vehicles it sells every year.
But years of industry research into high-mileage vehicles suggest that much of Ford's gains will come from putting its SUVs on a diet and giving them updated engines and transmissions. The trick will be to do so without affecting the power, size and prices that American consumers demand.
"Right now, fuel economy doesn't sell SUVs," said Jim Hall, an industry analyst with AutoPacific. "What [Ford] is hoping is they can get fuel economy as a reason to buy, with all the equity power and space you expect."
The SUVs that have pulled Ford, General Motors Corp. and the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG to record profits in the last decade are some of the most gas-guzzling personal vehicles in the world. In the United States, the typical combination of a 2-ton SUV with a V-8 engine and an automatic transmission is designed to maximize interior space and acceleration, not gas mileage.
Ford says its fleet gets about 18 miles per gallon now and by 2005 will get 23 mpg.
"We know exactly what we're doing and everything we're doing is already things we've tested and proven," said Kelly Brown, Ford director of vehicle environmental engineering.
Ford CEO Jac Nasser said about 30 percent of the gains will come from new models. The Ford Escape compact SUV going on sale now gets up to 28 miles per gallon with a four-cylinder engine, in part because it's built with a carlike structure that's lighter than the traditional body-and-frame truck design.
Ford also has said it will introduce in 2003 a version of the Escape with a hybrid gasoline/ electric power plant that will get up to 40 mpg in city driving.
The remaining 70 percent of the increase will have to come from the models Ford already sells. Miss Brown said the fuel economy changes will come as Ford renews its models. It is scheduled to introduce new versions of its Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs this fall, followed next year by new versions of the larger Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.
Most of the changes "aren't glamorous or exciting," said Joe Clark, Ford's director of advanced powertrains.
"A lot of it is taking things we knew how to do or we're thinking of how to do and going back to basics looking at weight, material use, every piece of engine technology," he said.
Mr. Hall said the redesigns are expected to be significantly lighter than their predecessors. For example, the Explorer/Mountaineer will have an independent rear suspension eliminating the heavy solid rear axle of the current model.
Ford also may use lighter aluminum instead of steel in sheet metal panels. By reducing weight, Ford could then switch to smaller, more efficient engines without hurting acceleration.
The engines themselves will likely be updated with more modern features. In general, truck engines tend to be somewhat less advanced than those in cars. Modern features such as double-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, common in new cars, allow engineers to build smaller engines with more power. The four-liter V-8 with those features in the Jaguar S-Type makes 290 horsepower, 30 more than the 5.4-liter V-8 in the Ford Expedition and Excursion.
And there are more exotic technologies close to production. Delphi Automotive Systems has shown a cylinder shutoff system that seamlessly cuts off fuel to four of a V-8's cylinders when a vehicle is cruising at highway speeds.
Many manufacturers are working on advanced automatic transmissions that shift solely by computer, eliminating the energy-sapping mechanics of today's automatics.
But for all these advancements to win consumers, analysts said they will have to work in ways invisible everywhere except at the gas pump.
"To get the [fuel economy] increase and try to maintain the scale of certain vehicles and the level of creature comforts, along with all the other options and features it's really a tall order," PaineWebber analyst Joe Phillippi said.

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