Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By William C Montgomery

The full-size SUV, species Gigantus Utilitas Amnericanus, stands like a mighty and proud American Bison. The even-toed ungulate’s wet nose nervously sniffs the threatening winds of change that blows across the prairie and buffets its coarse brown mane. For now, the herd stands proud and strong in suburban habitats. But today the mighty beast catches the scent of three long rifle-wielding predators: Panic, Price and Patriotism. Squarely in their sights stands the Ford Expedition King Ranch Edition.

In my quest to pit the new Toyota Sequoia against its American competition, I wanted to compare apples to apples. Unfortunately, at the time of the test, my Texas Ford didn’t have any SUVs in stock that match ToMoCo’s big rig in Platinum trim. The Expedition King Ranch I tested lacked 4-wheel drive and navigation system common to the new Sequoia and “White Diamond” Chevy Tahoe LTZ. Still, I got a gen-u-ine flavor of what The Blue Oval Boyz have to offer in the big and tall department.

Are there ANY stunning beauties in this category? I suppose not. And for people with environmental concerns at the forefront of their consciousness, the expansive special edition Expedition is especially devastatingly hideous. While the bigger-is-better crowd will find it irresistible, the mondo-SUV is, at its core, an unremarkably inoffensive big box hiding behind an F-150 mask. A handful of King Ranch logos branded on the flanks and rear end distinguished my tester from the rest of Expeditiondom.

Open any door and [optional] power-actuated running boards flip down to offer you a convenient step-up. Gorgeous Chaparral leather wraps the steering wheel and covers the seat surfaces, furnishing the cabin like a New Mexico ski lodge. Padded leather–embossed "King Ranch"– tops the wide center console separating the front seats. While this rustic look clashes with the industrial-styled dials and gauges, compared to the frenetic Sequoia dash, the Ford is a serene work of art.

The King Ranch’s fit and finish are remarkable. The tight-fitting steel round vents, for example, feel both precise and robust. One gripe: the RPM and MPH gauges are spaced too widely-– like eyes on a cow. Otherwise, Ford’s “tough luxury” theme is a time-tested triumph.

The Ford matches Toyota’s third-row seating comfort and does it one better. Second-row Sequoia Platinum passengers are separated by a rear seat center console. The King Ranch features second-row captain's chairs sans a center console and egress to the commodious third-row is as easy as stepping between the seats.

Sit at the helm of this suburban behemoth and a major shortcoming becomes immediately apparent. It’s hard to see out in any direction other than forward. Ford’s high-sided gunnels and thick B, C & D-pillars make rearward navigation a job for the mission critical– but optional– reverse camera.

Even without 4WD, the Expedition King Ranch feels heavier than the Tahoe or Sequoia. In fact, I swore I could feel smaller objects (bicycles, strollers, smart cars) drawing into its orbit. In Newtonian fashion, this massive object resists acceleration. And once in motion, the mega-machine wants to stay in motion. Weak binders with overactive ABS and imaginative electronic stability control system sent the brakes anti-locking more often than in any other vehicle I’ve driven.

The 5.4-liter three-valve Triton V8 charged with motivating the Expedition drinks like John Daly in the Hooters hospitality tent at a PGA tournament. In 4×2 trim, the powerplant chugs a gallon of gasoline every 12 miles around town and 18 whilst cruising the open roads. In its defense: 9000 lbs. towing capacity.

Load-leveling rear air suspension does a surprisingly good job of keeping the big rig flat during corners. But the electronically controlled air bladders failed to master the old world Denton County roads that are so patched and cracked that they’ve taken on the look of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Neither could the power steering hold this heifer to a straight line for any stretch of time at freeway speeds.

As tested, the King Ranch rings in at $47,695. Pony up for all the toys to bring the King Ranch onto par with the fancy Tahoe and Sequoia (including $4400 four-wheel drive), and the Ford’s MSRP tops $54K. That’s nearly $4K less than the White Diamond and $6K less than ToMoCo’s Platinum. To sweeten the deal, Ford’s currently putting another $5K on the hood to help move their moribund mastodon. Toyota? Not so much.

Log a few miles in the Expedition King Ranch Edition and you’ll swear it has as much interior square footage as a one-room frontier cabin from the days that herds of buffalo wildly roamed North America’s Great Plains. And it’s a much nicer place to spend time, to boot. But its insatiable appetite for unleaded and its porcine driving dynamics are — rightly– driving this bovine to extinction.


By Mike Solowiow

Special edition vehicles should be exactly that. They should offer something exceptional enough to tempt you to dig deeper in your pocket and drive away in a vehicle that's, well, special. “Investment” and historical issues aside, the Mustang Shelby GT didn’t provide a look and feel that justified the massive amount of extra coin demanded by dealers. By the same token, The Bullitt Mustang succeeds. It’s truly a unique set of wheels.

It’s easy to miss/dismiss the Bullitt Mustang as a Secretary’s Special. The Bullitt eschews all the fake hood scoop and plastic louver jewelry associated with modded ‘Stangs. The Ford style team stripped all chrome and badging from the GT’s exterior, deleted the spoiler. They added a satin aluminum grill surround (in honor of the ‘68’s chrome bumper), a Bullitt badge on the trunk lid and dark grey Bullitt “Torq Thrust” wheels. And called it good.

In either the standard Highland Green, or Satin Black, the Bullitt Mustang echoes the subdued style of the 1968 movie car as closely as the D2C platform and modern dynamics allow. The only aesthetic imperfection: the trunk doesn’t allow a true “fastback” rear end. In fact, it renders a slight “cat in heat” rear-in-the-air look. (Thank God for the subdued paint.)

Taken as a whole, the Ford Mustang GT Bullitt oozes understated cool. Forsaking Roush-style flash prevalent in Ford’s other special edition Mustangs, the Bullitt Mustang channels the aura of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen). In your mind’s eye, you can see the Bullitt Mustang laying in wait, ready to pounce on any black Charger that speeds by in the hills of San Francisco…

The interior design team mistook understatement for underdevelopment. On the positive side, they nabbed the highly-bolstered and supremely comfortable seats from the GT500. On the negative side, everything else. To wit: the lame-looking plastic Bullitt badge on the steering wheel . The dash boasts aluminum trim from a Starbucks countertop. The dashboard itself feels as brittle and old as the stone steps of ancient Petra. Ford doesn’t give you the upgraded stitched leather top; it’s a major omission on a special edition.

The Bullitt’s Shaker 500 stereo pumps out Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” with teeth-rattling base, but sounds slightly weak when screeching out Celine Dion’s latest (don’t ask me how I know that). Ford’s standard green-toothpick digital display dominates the center console. (Oh for the chrome-knobbed stereo of 1968!) The leather-covered seats are fashioned from a higher grade of cow than the abysmal standard interior, but you’re still left wondering if the material came from a bovine or an oil field.

Never mind. The sound the Bullitt Mustang’s 315bhp (15bhp more than stock) 4.6-liter V8 makes rivals Alfa Romeo’s aural porn. The ‘Stang’s mill is soft and burbly at idle. Press the hammer down and the powerplant erupts into a tirade violent enough to make presidential candidates shut up and take notice (not to mention the Secret Service’s adrenalin rush). Ford says it spent $10m revising the Bullitt’s exhaust note to mimic Steve McQueen’s ’68 fastback. If Ford spent every $10m to such great effect, bankruptcy rumors would cease to exist.

And yes, it’s fast. Coupled with a GT500 3:73 shortened rear axle ratio, the Bullitt launches to 60mph with tire smoking squeal and axle tramp (just like the movie!) in five seconds flat.

The machined aluminum shifter knob connected to a close-ratio, short-shift Tremec five-speed adds to the excitement. Smooth, quick and assuring, the shifter puts Hurst’s Shelby GT stick-in-sand shifter to absolute shame. Ford also included machined aluminum pedals positioned to facilitate heel and toeing– providing you’re wearing large shoes.

Ford borrowed many of the Shelby GT’s suspension components to liven-up, I mean “improve,” the standard GT’s handling. Turn-in defies the muscle car mass, and progressive feedback provides driving thrills all the way up to about eight tenths. Then the Bullitt shows how heavy it really is, yells uncle and steps the rear end out in smokey, Hollywood tail-slide glory.

The Bullitt’s ride quality sacrifices those extra two-tenths of handling ability to offer some daily usability. The ride of the Mustang Bullitt mimics not the original 1968 movie car, but a 2003 BMW 5-series. The Bullitt bounces dramatically only over the worst patches of interstate. Ford also skimped on the brakes to keep the price down. They stop long and fade quickly compared to the Bullitt’s competitors.

While not quite perfect, the Mustang GT Bullitt edition comes as close as the current body style allows. The Mustang Bullitt does more than the Shelby GT, with more style and some $6K less wedge. It echoes the original character of not only the movie car but the King of Cool himself. Aside from the tatty interior, the Ford Mustang GT Bullitt is what all Mustangs should be.


By P.J. McCombs

Ford’s marketers often appear to live in a sort of surrealist parallel universe. How else to explain their enlistment of Kermit, the self-effacing, hand-operated amphibian, to pitch the Ford Escape Hybrid? This SUV has the makings of a game-changing, ass-kicking product. It’s a genuine full hybrid, with components licensed from Toyota. It’s sized, styled and priced to the mainstream’s liking. Yet, saleswise, the hybrid Escape is croaking. Methinks Ford’s spokesfrog hasn’t given the Escape Hybrid the marketing momentum it deserves.

For 2008, Ford’s stylists breathed upon the entire Escape line to stop it disappearing into the crowd. But oy, what a crowd. The compact-‘ute party has been crashed by twelve newcomers since the Escape’s 2001 debut (one suspects free beer). The Escape’s new chromey, square-jawed mug is handsome enough— a little less Kenmore, a little more Clark Kent— but the mechanicals underneath remain largely unchanged.

That’s less a problem for the Hybrid than its gas-only siblings. While the rectilinear sheetmetal marks it as a veteran in this class, the Hybrid’s gas-electric powertrain is as bleeding-edge as anything you’ll find under a Japanese-badged hood. The Hybrid Escape is powered by a 133 hp 2.3-liter four cylinder gas burner, paired with a 70 kw electric motor. The Escape’s prehistoric four-speed auto is replaced by a planetary-type CVT. Under the cargo mat, you’ll find 330 volts’ worth of NiMH batteries.

Drop the spec sheet and plop into the Hybrid’s cabin, and the picture dims a little. The ‘08’s interior also gets a gentle makeover. Ford’s replaced dark, oily-grained stuff polymers with sandy, pebble-grained plastics du jour. A new dash upholds Ford’s blocky, neo-Lego motif. But the appointments remain stark. Touch points are hard. The gauge cluster glares with obnoxious reflections, and the center stack’s tightly-clustered, lookalike buttons are only slightly less busy than a TI-83 graphing calculator’s.

Look up from the IP (needn’t twist your arm there) to spot the upside of the Escape’s advancing years. That’s right, you can actually see out! Sightlines are wide and bright from the Hybrid’s upright, elevated helmspot. Roof posts are no girthier than a pine sapling. And despite the sprawl-out space within, the Escape Hybrid feels tidy and manageable in close quarters, its bluff-cornered hood simplifying distance-to-crunch judgments.

Distance-to-empty is, of course, the more relevant figure. So fire it up and check the trip computer. “Average MPG” should ring in around 30 mpg, given the 34/31 EPA estimates of my $29,865 front-drive tester. The AWD model surrenders a couple of mpg, at 29/27, in exchange for whatever peace of mind the front-biased, on-demand system affords. It also commands a $2500 premium over its FWD stablemate.

Who needs it? At its core, the Hybrid— like other Escapes— is a spacious grocery-getter that places you a foot or two above the madding crowd. And so, we drive.

The gasser four delivers moderate pep, humming benignly under a light throttle foot; heavier inputs send the CVT into the drone zone. The Escape’s chassis tiptoes daintily from block to block, driving lighter than its 3,638 lbs suggest. And the ride, while lumpier than a car’s and noisy over textured surfaces, is solid and rattle-free.

The rest of the Escape range has been prescribed rear drum brakes and electric power steering for 2008, leaving little conceivable reason to buy one. But the Hybrid retains its rear discs, and its steering has always been the fun-free electric variety. As such, it’s no surprise that the four-spoke helm feels vacant and numb in the hands. Fortunately, the rack’s accuracy is unimpeachable, with strong self-centering (insert SUV joke here) and a pleasing hollow heft off-center.

More surprising: the transparency of the Escape’s hybrid system. Far from a stilted freshman effort, the Escape’s drivetrain phases in and out of electric mode quickly and seamlessly. Moreover, its gas engine’s startup/shutdown shudders are subtler than a Prius’. Its regenerative brakes boast a natural pedal feel, too— the action’s a bit stiff, but it’s not at all nebulous or grabby.

So, what’s not to like about the Escape Hybrid? Two things. First, you don’t get an animated power-flow display, a la Toyota, unless you stump for the $2,695 navigation system (a quaint “charge/assist” gauge is standard issue). And second, this Ford is only a pleasure to drive in appliance mode. Pushed hard, the engine brays, the suspension sways, and the hard-compound tires shriek and forget to grip.

Big deal. The Escape Hybrid is for people who’d rather save gas than haul ass. As such, it’s perfectly suited to drivers who want to realize significant fuel savings, but don’t want to sacrifice riding tall in the saddle. Or are only comfortable in a plus-sized vehicle. Or simply don’t want to be pigeonholed politically.

Sink the real marketing dollars into this one, Ford; it’s worth it. It ain’t easy being green? Says who?


By Sajeev Mehta

Thanks to John Steinbeck and Nat King Cole, Route 66 is an American icon. But Highway 77 in South Texas gives "kicks" of the international kind. As this highway winds down Mexico way, we find neglected and discarded compact trucks in pairs, towing their belittled brothers to a new life south of the Border. And while America's insatiable demand for new product continues apace, Highway 77 speaks to a silent majority who favors cheaper and smaller vehicles. It's the spiritual home of the Ford Ranger.

The Ford Ranger is more WYSIWYG than Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Unlike its mid-size competition, the Ranger is perfectly happy without top-drawer flares, flashy paint, extensions and bulges. While the Blue Oval Boyz updated the grille and side mirrors to mimic big brother F150, nobody's buying it. (Literally.) But the Ranger's low beltline, expansive greenhouse and modest 15" steel wheels work as promised. The Ranger is a simple, respectable pickup truck.

The ease of ingress offers another reason why this ancient platform feels more timeless than outdated. Its thickly textured flight bench seat is both reassuring and supportive. The solid rubber floor smells like a new pair of professionally-endorsed kicks. Fit and finish is class average. No surprise there; this is the same interior that Clinton-era Eddie Bauer fans snapped up for more than twice the price. Other than its complete lack of fashion sense, the Ranger has aged well.

Sliding out of the Ranger is just as easy as entering; if only all trucks knew that "small" is the new "big." But adding a CD/MP3 player and a sliding rear window to the Ranger provides an honest driving experience not normally associated with today's electronic overkill.

Since options cost money, there are only two that earn their keep: the mid-grade V6 and its automatic five-cog gear swapper. The cast iron "Vulcan" mill walks the fine line between four-banger affordability (a $300 option) and V6 power, getting the Ranger to work early with 180lb-ft of pushrod twist. Even with the close ratio transmission keeping the meager 148 ponies at their peak, the Ranger moves with no sense of urgency. The zero to sixty "dash" take around 10 seconds.

But what the numbers don't tell you is that the Ranger's engine offers smooth power delivery and a flat powerband. Unlike its thrashy four-banger competition, the 3100lb Ranger scoots like a big truck and tows a Ridgeline-beating 5860lbs behind its puny frame. Fuel economy penalty be damned, ye olde Vulcan is still a peach.

Not to mention the fact that the torquey Ranger is fun to drive. Its not rocket science. Take a tiny rear wheel-drive truck, add a beefy powertrain, responsive steering, a modicum of roll control and voila! Cheap thrills. Sure the Continental tires have zero grip, and an unladen bed gives the solid axle plenty of wiggle room. But the Ranger gladly explores its limits at speeds safe enough for Ralph Nader's approval. Push any harder and the Ranger quickly points out it isn't a modern truck, much less a mild-mannered econobox.

But when the performance-anxiety reality sets in, the Ranger's parking lot skills and distraction-free visibility are a breath of fresh air. U-turns are effortless in this 69.3" wide platform. It's so nimble that a fleet of Rangers could perform in a down-home drifting team, touring the nation behind Toby Keith's tour bus.

That said, the blue-collar Ranger's inherent ugliness on bumpy roads reveals that this pickup's frame has all the torsional rigidity of half-cooked tortellini. Its underpinnings lose composure over every pothole, no matter how miniscule its proportions. Sadly, this neglected rig has none of the mighty engineering prowess of its F150 brother. And that's a damn shame.

With the departure of the compact Toyota Tacoma in 2004, the Ranger is the only safe haven for "right-sized" truckers. The Ranger's long bed carries a full 43.6 cubic feet of cargo, with a metal tailgate that easily closes with a single hand. And while the latest Ford F150 boasts class-leading stepladders to access its bountiful bed, Ranger-philes need not stretch a single vertebra to grasp a misplaced tool in their pickup's cargo hole.

After my time with a Ranger, the words "reasonable" and "honest" sprung to mind. As gas prices soar, the housing market tanks and sales of mid/full size pickups return from whence they came, the time for the Ranger to shine is now.

But the staggering neglect and obligatory demise of another famous Blue Oval product is proof positive that Ford is lowering its overhead via unnecessary self-mutilation. As the threat of mini-rigs from once-foreign lands grows more credible, the low-brow Ranger is a potential profit center. Come 2009, Ford's decision to kill the Ranger will soon become another haunting melody from another, better time.


By Martin Schwoerer

Before emailing a rave review of the new Ford Mondeo, I wanted to understand why an automaker with such great products in the Eurozone has such a mediocre reputation. Posing as a potential purchaser, I phoned to make an appointment for a test drive. Employee of Dealership A: "We have one Mondeo you could try out, but we are booked for the next ten days, I think." Sales guy at Dealership B: "Sorry, I just started here six months ago, the guy in charge is on sick leave.” His stand-in? On vacation. “Please call again in a week or so.” See? It’s NOT all about the product. But I digress…

The Ford dealer experience is miserable, but the Mondeo’s visual delights are marvelous. For me, a handsome car needs three basic characteristics: strength, cleanliness and character. The Mondeo nails all three. The four-door Ford’s long wheelbase (much longer than, for example, the Passat) accentuates its wide, muscular stance. Its sleek headlamps and taut taillights render it instantly recognizable; the detailing is flawless. It's just what America needs: a non-bland, better-proportioned, more modern Taurus.

The Mondeo’s interior may not be a high-style zone, but it’s a satisfying, well-thought-out piece of work. Plastics invite intimacy, sound good to a rapped knuckle, smell fine and are aligned to the dot. The ergonomics excel, in that thoroughly unobjectionable way you expect from a carefully-considered mass market appliance.

On the downside, from a back-seat perspective, the middle console looks like it has labia (not an association its designer should be trying to achieve when there’s a stubby gear shifter in view). The cabin’s fake-aluminum steering wheel buttons look cheesier than Cheddar. And the three-quarters rear visibility is poor. But let's concentrate on the fact that the Mondeo has impressive (above E-class, better-than-Fusion) space for five, and a giant trunk to boot.

In case you were wondering, the Ford Mondeo is a front wheel-drive (FWD) vehicle. The sedan completely violates the pistonhead principle that FWD’s packaging and weight advantages exact a major penalty from the driving dynamics.

My tester holstered Ford's 2.0-liter, 140hp diesel. The oil burner is an extremely refined unit, significantly smoother than the highly respected Volkswagen TDI. On paper, the diesel Mondeo’s 10.6 second zero to sixty sprint time seems, as the French are wont to say, insupportable. But the Mondeo serves-up a wave of torquey thrust from 1800 - 4500 rpm that helps Mondeo man maintain momentum. Using the standard light-action six-speed manual, I never ran out of gears. No matter how hard I thrashed the powerplant, I never saw less than 29 mpg. At a more sedate pace, I averaged 35 mpg.

Thanks to Ford chassis guru Richard Parry-Jones, the Mondeo’s handling is a revelation. Accelerating briskly from rest on a dusty back road, there was a bit of scamper from the inside front tire. But the Mondeo’s electronic damper control system, which pitches the car forward on low-traction surfaces, gave great grip. During a pedal-to-the-floor exit from a roundabout, the feedback-intensive tiller produced a slight tug and then… nothing.

When I lifted off the gas pedal in a high-speed curve, and then floored it, the Mondeo remained unruffled, with no nonsense from the electronic stability Nanny. While we’re at it, how about a 90-degree merge and full-thrust run into an uneven-camber secondary road? Well, in this case, the steering wheel needed a bit of coercive correction, and, to paraphrase Dorothy, I have a feeling we’re not in a BMW anymore. But the Mondeo is inherently fun, agile, and composed– aside from the snatchy brakes (the bane of so many contemporary cars).

The Mondeo rides well, too. On the freeway, over secondary undulations, the Mondeo is bettered by world-leading softies from Lexus, Mercedes and Citroen. In all other conditions, the Ford product rides like the low, long-wheelbase, wide car that it is: well-controlled, comfortable and calm. On a quiet Autobahn morning, I found myself passing other cars as if they were standing still. I peeked at the odometer and saw an indicated 135 mph. Bliss.

So what is the Mondeo? We could quote Germany's famously chauvinistic Auto,Motor & Sport, who said the Ford family sedan is better than the C-Class Mercedes. But let's just say it's a lower-profile, less-roomy Ford S-Max with slightly better handling and somewhat better fuel economy.

But more than that, the Ford Mondeo is exactly what its American admirers believe it to be: four-wheeled proof that Ford can build a world-class, value-priced car that satisfies both practical and emotional desires. So why haven’t they? That’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’ll say this: if Ford can’t send the Mondeo stateside at a profit, they should send the people who built it. And if they build it, customers will come. It’s as simple as that.

FORD F-150

2009 Ford F-150/ In-Depth: Overview

By John Rettie

The 2009 Ford F-150 pickup will offer a slew of useful new features and technologies for towing and hauling along with fresh new styling throughout. The 2009 F-150 goes on sale fall 2008.

The 2009 F-150 boasts a tough new exterior, with a bigger and brawnier grille and fatter fenders designed to make the wheels look larger. A small spoiler-like lip on the rear tailgate gives the rear an unusual look and is designed to improve aerodynamics.

Underneath, a new chassis features a stronger frame for more torsional rigidity. Ford says it will offer improved towing and hauling capability along with increased durability and safety.

Towing is made easier with the addition of an Integrated Trailer Brake Controller along with a Trailer Sway Control system that ties into the ABS and Roll Stability Control to tame swaying trailers through application of the brakes to individual wheels. A Rearview Camera makes hitching up much easier.

A new, built-in step in the rear tailgate allows easy access to the bed from the rear. First seen on the latest Super Duty models, the step is optional on all levels of F-150 trim and features a hand hold that flips up, making climbing up even easier. When not being used, the step slides into the tailgate hiding it from sight.

A new, foot-operated side step, located just behind the cab on each side, allows easy access into the bed, important with the high-sided bed.

We tried these features out when the truck was revealed at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January and came away impressed.

Ford will offer numerous accessories to help carry and secure stuff in the bed. These include cleats designed to withstand 600 pounds of force. A track system allows installation of movable bed dividers and storage bins. And a new bed extender snaps apart and stows to the sides and out of the way when not in use.

The 2009 F-150 interior has been improved with better finishes on surfaces yet it retains a rugged feel with decent sized spaces and knobs for people who might use the truck for work.

The crew cab model is six inches longer than before and the B-pillar has been moved back six inches giving easier access to the front seats and better sideways viewing for the driver while allowing much more room inside for rear seat passengers.

The rear seats fold up out of the way to reveal a flat floor that can hold over 57 cubic feet of cargo. This was demonstrated by sliding a new 50-inch flat-panel television behind the front seats.

All 2009 F-150 models will come with a V8 engine: a 4.6-liter 2-valve V8, a 4.6-liter 3-valve V8, and a 5.4-liter 3-valve Triton V8. The engines have been tuned to produce more power yet deliver improved fuel economy, Ford says. The 5.4-liter is capable of running E85 ethanol. A V6 will not be offered, but Ford says the base 4.6-liter V8 matches the fuel economy of the outgoing V6. All models get a six-speed automatic transmission with a deceleration fuel cut-off system for added economy.

Diesel and an EcoBoost gas turbo direct injection engines are planned for the F-150 in 2010.

High tech electronic options include Ford's highly regarded Sync audio system and Sirius satellite radio.

Safety has not been forgotten. The list reads more like that from a luxury sedan than a traditional work truck. Rollover curtain airbags as well as individual seat side airbags are standard on all models. Traction control with a trailer sway control system is standard on all models. It works in conjunction with ABS and is most effective with compatible trailer brakes, if fitted.

There will be an even greater number of choices of bed lengths, cab size, drivetrains and engines, etc to choose from. There are 11 choices of wheels, for example. The model names start with the base XL, and progress through STX, XLT, FX4, Lariat, King Ranch to the new Platinum model. Prices are likely to start at around $19,000 for a base XL and go above $40,000 for a fully laden top-of-the line Platinum model.

The stakes are high for Ford. The Ford F-series pickup continues to be the best selling pickup in America after 31 straight years, yet the competition is closing the sales gap. The Chevy Silverado was redesigned for 2007 and is right behind the F-150 in popularity, Toyota has made inroads with its new, full-size 2008 Tundra, and Dodge is redesigning the Ram for 2009.


New Ford Taurus "X"

By P.J. McCombs

Ford likes SUVs so much that they build five platforms for ‘em, many of which fight amongst themselves for sales in overlapping segments. Yet the most competitive, the most relevant of Ford’s sport-utilities is also the one no one— not even Ford marketing— seems to know exists: the Taurus X, née Freestyle. Question: if a terrific CUV falls in the sales charts and nobody in Dearborn notices, does it exist?

In 2005, while Ford’s PR team was busy blowing smoke about “Bold Moves,” the Freestyle slipped quietly into dealerships with a C.V. as impressive as a certain ex-Boeing exec’s. Sub-Highlander height? Check. Super-Highlander interior space? Check. Agile, rock-solid chassis derived from the previous-gen Volvo S80’s? Ja, that too.

So what’s caused this clever crossover to languish on dealer lots? Two little words: no marketing. Two years after its “soft launch,” the Freestyle was abandoned for the Next Big Thing (a.k.a. the Edge). As the Freestyle had less name recognition than the Explorer (or, for that matter, the Donkervoort S8AT), CEO Alan Mulally felt free to rename the model a Taurus X. By then the Freestyle was so far under the radar Ford could have called it the F-Up and no one would have noticed.

And yet, as TTAC proclaimed last time 'round, Ford’s crossover is well worth a second look. Despite a hasty application of Ford’s new Norelco nose, the Taurus X wears tidy, tallish proportions topped with a tastefully anonymous greenhouse. Call it a hemmed-out Outback, or a slim-fit Explorer. You could also call it anodyne. Narcoleptic or not, the Taurus X avoids the bulbous look blighting many vehicles in its class.

The X’s cabin exhibits similar restraint. It’s an easy step into the wide, elevated driver’s seat. The raised helmspot combines with thin pillars and a generous glass area to provide a widescreen windscreen. The no-nonsense dash is clean and conservatively curved, comprised of barely-pliable plastics and parts-bin switchgear. A thick, rubberized grab bar perches atop the glovebox, perfect for panicky co-pilots who brace themselves for every lane change (you know who you are).

Prefer to banish those passengers to the back? They won’t need much convincing. The Taurus X’s low, flat floor and tall ceiling provide van-like space in the second row, with two properly propped-up “captain’s chairs” ready to quell complaints on long trips. A cavernous console bin with two deep cupholders separates these comfy thrones; a conventional three-across bench seat is a no-cost option.

Then there’s Taurus X’s piece de resistance: the third-row seat. Okay, this isn’t the sort of thing that gets pistonheads’ blood pumping. But the X’s “way-back” is a packaging marvel that offers a wide, easy step-through to a mini-bench sized for real, live humans. Even teenagers (who share over 99 percent of their DNA with humans) will find knee clearance uncontestable, with surplus space overhead for carefully-groomed manes and coifs.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a decent third row, as anyone who’s done much crossover cross-shopping can attest. In this class, only GM’s Lambda triplets offer such magnanimous space for seven, and the Enclave, Acadia and Outlook are nearly one thousand pounds porkier– each– than the Taurus X. The Toyota Highlander’s third row, by comparison, is a nicely-trimmed tuna can.

The Ford and Toyota go tit for tat when it comes to hauling familial detritus. Each offers huge floor space in back; the Toyota offers a bit more of it, while the Ford boasts a lower liftover. The Highlander shames the X’s weak 2,000 lbs, tow rating; the Ford busts a can of fold-ass on the front passenger’s seat.

Here’s another X feature that’s missing from the Toyota: steering feel! Now, don’t get too excited here. While offering more feedback than most of its rivals, the Taurus X’s power assisted helm still feels gummy and a touch light around the straight-ahead. But it carves linear, reassuring arcs in curves. And that means the X drives smoothly, easily, and, well, no differently than the four-door Taurus. It ought to, considering that the X sits only six inches taller than its sedan stablemate, with the same driver eyepoint.

Performance? Yes, there’s some of that, too, as the Freestyle’s badge and grille weren’t the only things Ford swapped out for 2008. There’s also a new 3.5-liter V6, weighing in at 263 horsepower, mated to a six-speed automatic. This combination provides a steady, seamless supply of oomph; albeit delivered in that distant, detached manner endemic to quiet, high-riding vehicles. The auto occasionally dithers when asked to downshift, magnifying the impression. But then, no three-row crossover is a street scorcher.

Even as Ford’s SUV stable swells to bursting, the mpg Taurus X is the best of the bunch: reasonably frugal, perfectly practical, wonderfully comfortable and thoroughly modern. But Ford’s stunning lack of situational and self-awareness condemns the Taurus X to obscurity. Thus the mighty have fallen.


2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT vs. 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI

By P.J. McCombs

As automakers continue their relentless pursuit of refinement, there’s precious little “magic” to be had behind the wheel of a new car. Sit down, and you instantly know where everything is and how to operate it. Start it up and drive and few sensations are overly vivid. In short, most new cars are about as surprising as a toaster. Ford’s Mustang Shelby GT is the un-toaster. I recently braved the perils of California’s Mojave Desert (e.g. bad road food) to sample the Shelby at the Willow Springs Raceway. The experience was not bland. On the contrary, it was, erm… memorable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Shelby GT is a for-the-people version of 2006’s Shelby GT-H, a special-edition ‘Stang available only for rental through Hertz. The same upgrades apply: a one-and-a-half-inch drop, stouter springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, a front strut tower brace, and a freer-breathing intake and exhaust. There’s also—wait for it— a numbered and Carroll-Shelby-signed commemorative plaque on the dash. Ooh. Aah. Sorry, just yawning.

Now, this may seem like the umpteenth special-edition ‘Stang Ford has released to pump life into its retro pony’s sales (Warriors in Pink Edition, anyone?). But the car’s pert, chunky lines still draw stares. And while Shelby’s visual additions put the “tack” in tack-ons (eighteen-inch imitation “mags,” hood pins, billet grille, the usual suspects), they can be taken in good fun. Early in the day, journalists waited in line to drive this car. When’s the last time someone got excited about a rental Ford?

I mentioned memorable sensations. The first arrives when you swing open the Shelby’s heavy door and drop yourself into the dark, leather-trimmed interior. Half-filling your bunker-slit view is a hood scoop. Not a WRX-style mail slot, but the real dream-cruise deal, racing-striped and stamped into place with rivets. It’s nonfunctional, of course.

At the base of the console sits another shameless, self-conscious grasp at the past: a cue-ball-topped Hurst short shifter. Try to grab a gear with this thing and it feels broken. Improbably high effort is required to scritch-scratch the lever through its tiny, gritty H-pattern, as if someone used sand as a lubricant. Stylistically, it gels seamlessly with the rest of the ‘Stang’s ‘60s-revival interior décor. And hey, at least the five-speed is a manual; the Hertz GT-H, as some may recall, was auto-only.

The salience of that last point becomes apparent upon turning the key. The noise that issues from the Shelby’s exhausts is the stuff of teenage fantasies: dense, rumbly, woofly and loud. Spine tingles come standard. And with a manual at your disposal, this luscious soundtrack inspires all kinds of delightful antisocial behaviors, from unnecessary revving at a stop to unnecessary displays of WOT on the move.

According to Ford, the exhaust and intake combo are good for an extra 19 horses versus the standard Mustang GT, for a total of 319. That’s more than enough for serious fun, especially since the 4.6-liter V8 pours on torque thickly and smoothly in the midrange (low-end grunt is surprisingly modest). Zero to 60mph runs take just about five seconds. But the Shelby’s dynamics are, um, less than contemporary.

Readers who’ve driven the standard-issue ‘Stang are doubtless already familiar with its light, numb steering, its proclivity to understeer and the general sense of squidge in its suspension. Truth is, the Shelby’s starched suspenders don’t improve matters much. Body motions are nicely taut, and its stride feels a bit more hunkered-down. But the Shelby still left my neurons reeling as its helm scribed gloopy, too-fast arcs into Willow Springs’ sweeping high-speed corners.

And braking? Talk about “memorable.” The middle pedal feels weaker than a wine spritzer and mushier than Mills & Boon. Worse, the Shelby GT evinces a spooky live-axle weave when you drop anchor at triple-digit speeds. Its rear end gets loose and queasy as the front end dives to sniff the pavement. I didn’t notice any pucker marks on the seat cushion’s leather upholstery. Must be tough stuff.

Okay, so the typical Shelby GT buyer isn’t looking to run it around a track. More likely they’ll use it to cruise the main drag, luring envious glances from other aging rodders. Or maybe they’ll canter down a mountain road, reveling in the echo of its exhaust. Under such circumstances, I, too, would surely fall under the Shelby’s spell.

But hey, that’s easy to do while driving on someone else’s dime. The MSRP for this nostalgic bit of blue-oval bluster? $36,970. Seriously. And all of the performance parts are, as they say, “also sold separately.” Check ‘em off in your Ford Racing catalog and you’ll total $2,656. Budget a couple thousand more to have everything bolted onto your $25,840 Mustang GT.


Top Gear: Focus ST

The temptingly priced and rapid Focus ST delivers real thrills and practicality in abundance. For : Sensational handling, steering, gearchange and brakes, engine note, price, well bolstered front seats
Against : Poor fuel economy, weak residuals, wide turning circle, no off-clutch footrest, one-year recovery package

The ST is an absolute hoot to drive, and makes even the Golf GTI feel tame. It has the best steering feel, body control and grip, not to mention stunning traction out of slow corners. In short, the Ford delivers the biggest adrenaline rush of any hot hatch, yet always feel trustworthy and secure. And despite Ford's fundamental changes to the Focus chassis - lowering the ride by 25mm, adding firmer springs, bigger roll bars and extra stiffening - refinement hasn't suffered unduly. There's a crucial compliancy and comfort to its damping that few rivals can match; the ride isn't unduly harsh, so it can offer comfort as well as entertainment. Tremendous brakes round the remarkable chassis off. It's all powered by a 2.5-litre turbo five-pot borrowed from Volvo, but with changes specified by Ford's engineers. Mid-range grunt is deeply impressive and acceleration is superb, despite a touch of low rev turbo lag. We hit 60mph in just 6.4 seconds. The five-cylinder growl is exceptional too.

The standard Focus may not be eye catching, but Ford's designers have done a good job of pepping up the ST. The lower front bumper, with its rally-style detailing, looks much more aggressive, and the beefy standard 18-inch wheels are superb, filling the arches nicely. Three- and five-door variants are available, in three trims levels; ST-1, ST-2 and ST-3. The base model is a price-led special, with ST-2 variants expected to take most sales. Competition comes from many sources - the hot hatch sector is booming. The Golf GTI, Vauxhall Astra VXR, Skoda Octavia vRS, Mazda3 MPS, Seat Leon FR and Citroen C4 VTS are all rivals.

A sloping rear window can make those in the back of the three-door feel hemmed-in, and passengers have to cope with slightly less legroom than regular Focus, due to the larger Recaros. The sculpted and supportive rear bench is supplied by the same firm, but only seats two; a three-seat version is also available. Up front, the driver's seat could do with being a touch lower to perfect the position, but the chair itself is fantastic, offering better back support and big side bolsters. The dash is well laid out too, with a delightful Sony stereo available. There's no off-clutch footrest, but the slick gearchange encourages you to make the most of the engine. However, the big five-pot engine proves thirsty when pressed, and a decent warranty and service schedule is spoiled by a mean one-year recovery deal. Retained values that can't quite match rivals such as the Golf also push up overall running costs, and insurance is a heady (if class competitive) group 17. But the wide, practical boot opening reveals a class-leading load capacity of 385 litres.


By Sajeev Mehta

Ford is hawking their “new” Taurus (née Five Hundred) as America's safest full-size sedan. This tells us two things. First, the Ford division famous for producing the world’s safest cars (Volvo) is as good as gone. Second, The Blue Oval Boyz replaced their alleged allegiance to Bold Moves with a profound proclamation of Risk Aversion. Whether or not either decision is correct is a moot point; FoMoCo doesn't have the time nor the money to not to sell Volvo or develop edgy new automobiles. So is Ford’s safe car a safe bet? As the Afrikaners say, Ja nee.

Even a cursory glance reveals that the new Taurus is the same size, shape and stance as the "old" Five Hundred– if only because it's the same car. Luckily, the moniker change necessitated a face lift. Proportionally correct lighting pods remove much of the old model’s goofiness, while the tri-bar grille adds maximum Forditude. Even with fender vents and an Altezza lighting festival out back, the Taurus can’t quite shake off Mister Mays’ retro-futurist homage to Volkswagen’s bland sedans.

I repeat: there’s no getting around the Taurus’ quasi-VW creases. While the Limited-grade’s chrome side mirror skullcaps add extra presence (in the proud Detroit tradition of pay-as-you-go invidious distinctions), the Taurus is only somewhat less forgettable than the Five Hundred lurking underneath.

The Taurus’ interior also remains largely unchanged from its predecessor– if only because it's the same car. And let’s just say there’s a reason why the “old” Five Hundred was known for its spaciousness, rather than anything else. Spatially speaking, the Taurus' class-leading volume works against it; the wood veneer and oval dashboard clock fail to warm a cold, cavernous cabin. The Taurus Limited [re-]attempts to redress this sterility with perforated leather covers. Nice as they are, they fail to lighten the interior's Calvinist demeanor.

One tug at the Taurus’ vent registers reveals a distinct lack of plastic integrity. And while the door panels have the right soft bits and timber trimmings, the Accord’s tight-fitting elbow padding still drops a bomb on Ford’s (wide) gap band. The tiller’s rock hard airbag cover is the biggest let down: a constant reminder that bean-counted consumer touch points work for Rangers, but its no [fuzzy] dice on a flagship Ford. The only condolence: the gauge cluster’s richly detailed faces, a smattering of chromed knobs and the leather/chrome clad gearshift’s vault-like detents.

The Five Hundred’s 3.0-liter Duratec V6 was safe (i.e. slow) at any speed. Combined with a well trained six-speed autobox, the reborn Taurus’ 3.5-liter replacement morphs the sedan from zero to hero. Rest to 60mph now requires just 7.6 seconds of your time. Equally impressive, the 263hp Taurus hustles from the git-go and delivers linear power from the basement all the way to the penthouse.

Torque steer is out there, somewhere, but only the really determined gas masher will find it. Anyway, fear not, for the Taurus sits upon a cost-engineered variant on Volvo’s robust P3 platform, complete with the usual safety cage and crash force management and additional rollover and crash sensor (the computer determines how much to inflate the air bags and how long to keep them inflated). Considering the Taurus’ new level of handling prowess, this is not a purely psychological selling point.

Tragically, the Blue Oval suspension tunerz took the path of least roll resistance. This chassis is no longer a poor man’s Volvo S80; it’s a reincarnated Ford LTD. True to land yacht lore, the new Taurus pitches in corners, bobs in bends and dives in panic stops. Luckily, braking is still solid with 18” rims and discs at all corners– once you get over the long travel pedal and spongy effort.

One fast turn in the Taurus and its clear that Ford took one step forward and one step back. The extra power is much appreciated, but the Taurus is dying for last year’s springy bits. Understeer arrives quickly and stays until the party’s over and everyone– including the tow truck driver– have gone home. Meanwhile, the Taurus’ numb steering has more on-center play than Yao Ming on a fourth-quarter fast break.

Even with hundreds of internal modifications (e.g. cramming sound-deadening stuff into every unseen orifice), a disconcerting amount of tire growl still invades the cabin. On the positive side, the numerous tuning-tweaks have had a negligible effect on this chassis’ already impressive ride quality.

If wallow and float were the missing ingredients stymieing the Five Hundred’s commercial prospects, the “new” Taurus will be a guaranteed home run. Hey, it's not inconceivable. The return of the Bull heralds the death of the Crown Vic. Most Fordies loyal to Ye Olde Panther platform will likely find the Taurus a suitable replacement. While lacking the Vic's brick-house construction, RWD poise and old school seating, the “new” Ford Taurus is the Toyota Avalon of American sedans. How great is that?