A very big shoe dropped last week, when Ford—on the eve of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit—put out a blizzard of announcements. Not only was it going to build a hybrid version of its iconic F-150 truck (the bestselling vehicle in America, already being built in aluminum to save weight) but it would offer a hybrid Mustang ("with V8 power") and a plug-in hybrid Transit Custom van in Europe.
And that was just the beginning: Ford is also directly challenging Tesla Motors by building, in 2020, a 300-mile-range electric SUV along the lines of the Model X. This seems like an inevitable move after GM debuted the Bolt (with 200-mile electric range) to acclaim. Jaguar brought the I-Pace electric SUV to Los Angeles in November, and both Volkswagen and Porsche are proceeding with Tesla killers (an SUV and sports car, respectively).
Trump watchers probably heard only one big part of the announcements—the canceling of Ford’s new $1.6 billion small car plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. During the campaign, the President-elect was on the warpath about automakers building U.S.-market cars outside the U.S., and Ford is the first to sound a retreat. Production is to be shifted to its plant in Flat Rock, MI, which will be expanded with a $700 million upgrade. That’s “700 direct new U.S. jobs,” in case you missed it.
Ford also announced “a high-volume autonomous vehicle [initially for North America] designed for commercial ride hailing or ride sharing,” debuting in 2021 and also built at Flat Rock next to the new Lincoln Continental; and “two new, pursuit-rated hybrid police vehicles,” one to be built in Chicago.
The most significant part of all this is, for me, the company’s continued focus on electric cars at a time when the regulatory climate for them could get less friendly. Ford has said it will invest $4.5 billion in electrified vehicles by 2020, and that includes 13 new models in the next five years.
My mind is still reeling from the prospect of a hybrid Mustang. I mean, c’mon, we’re talking about America’s premier muscle car, whose spawn has included Carroll Shelby’s GT350 and that ’68 fastback that took out after the Dodge Charger in Bullitt. But I reeled at the prospect of an aluminum F-150, too, and that one seems to be doing pretty well. I’m still trying to picture a hybrid Mustang buyer, though.
The fact is that the great American plug-in seems irreversible to me, as batteries come down in price and electric cars get better and better. The Bolt is just the first of the affordable cars combining great range with the scintillating off-the-line performance that is the electric trademark. If the $7,500 federal income tax credit for EVs disappears, it will be a blow, but not a fatal one.
Ford has made plain that its 13 new models won’t simply be gas cars with start-stop systems, or even so-called “mild” hybrids, but a new portfolio of battery electrics, full hybrids and plug-in hybrids. In effect, you’ll soon be able to buy an electrified version of nearly every car in Ford’s lineup. And that approach will be taken by most automakers going forward.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said in making the announcements that the company’s investments and expanding lineup “reflect our view that global offerings of electrified vehicles will exceed gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 15 years.” I couldn’t have said that better myself.