Ford's New Monster

  • Everyone loved the Jeep, an instant icon with its short frame and oh-so-rugged ways. Eventually, our hearts and wallets--and behinds--warmed to beefed-up successors, like the Ford Explorer and GMC Yukon. But is the whole SUV craze getting a little out of control with the new Ford Excursion, the King Kong of SUVs at 19 ft. and 8,500 lbs.? Park it in the garage--won't happen. And this six-door nine-seater swallows gas fast enough (about 12 miles per gal.) to warm any oil sheik's heart.

    The new monster seems to be biting the reputation of Ford's new chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., great-grandson of the founder, who has promised to lead the auto industry into a pollution-free future. But Ford executives know that big, gas-thirsty vehicles are where the consumers and the cash meet. For years, General Motors has raked in oversize profits with the Chevrolet Suburban, long the standard-bearer among land yachts. Analysts say the spacious Suburban holds $10,000 to $15,000 in profit per vehicle. When the Excursion roars into showrooms this fall with a projected sticker price of $45,000 to $50,000, Ford could take in up to $20,000 per vehicle.

    Not to be outwheeled, GM will unveil its new Chevrolet Suburban next month. Considering that the Excursion is nearly a foot longer than the current Suburban (18 ft., 3 in.) don't be surprised if GM has enlisted the Pentagon for design cues. "We set the benchmark for this type of vehicle," boasts Chevrolet/GMC spokesman Dee Allen. "We don't intend to simply hand it over."

    SUV and truck sales are hotter than ever and show little signs of cooling off soon. In the past seven years, sales of giant suvs have rocketed from 50,000 to nearly 160,000. Trucks and suvs represent 50% of all the vehicles sold in the U.S. In 1997, Ford alone tallied $60 billion in revenues from sales of popular suvs such as the Explorer, Expedition, Lincoln Navigator and other kinds of trucks.

    Environmentalists call the Excursion a betrayal by a company that pledged to become cleaner and greener than its rivals. The Sierra Club is calling the Excursion "the Ford Valdez," after the infamous oil tanker. As Sierra president Dan Becker puts it, "People aren't marching in the streets demanding a vehicle that can carry a whole apartment in it." What's more, environmentalists argue, the Excursion will dump double the pollution of a small car, while at the same time raising the temperature of the earth's atmosphere. "It's nice that Ford is talking about the environment," says Becker. "But Ford needs to put its vehicles where its mouth is."

    Safety advocates also fret that corporate responsibility has stalled. SUV critics have long contended that vehicles like the Excursion and Suburban contribute to more deadly accidents because they are so much larger than, say, a Dodge Neon.

    Ford maintains that it hasn't spurned its commitment to building cleaner, safer SUVs. At last week's Excursion unveiling, teams of Ford executives pleaded with reporters to "look beyond" the vehicle's hulking exterior to its more unsung attributes. The Excursion will qualify as a low-emission vehicle in all 50 states and is expected to emit 43% less smog than is permitted by law. Ford also says it is planning to roll out a small SUV that could get up to 30 miles per gal. On the safety side, a new steel-beam technology should help reduce the chances of a Neon's rolling underneath an Excursion or being crushed. The beam is designed to absorb the impact of a collision and lift the Excursion's front end before it makes contact with another car's passenger compartment.

    Ford is unlikely, however, to abandon the big metal if that's what customers want. Even William Clay Ford Jr. is learning to think about Ford's future in more pragmatic terms. "What we do to help the environment must succeed as a business proposition," he likes to tell reporters. "A zero-emissions vehicle that sits unsold on a dealer's lot is not reducing pollution." For now, Ford seems willing to take its lumps as it struggles to balance its plan to build greener cars with going for the green.