Big SUV. Smaller Market.

George Pipas, U.S.

George Pipas, U.S. Sales Analysis Manager, Ford Motor Company, cites some statistics. In 1995, the annual sales of large SUVs was on the order of 250,000 units. In 1996 the first Ford Expedition was introduced. In 1997, large SUV sales were doubled, to over 500,000 units. (Coincidence? Ford people don't exactly think so.) By 2001, and through 2004, Pipas continues, the segment had grown to one million units. But then something happened at the end of calendar year '04, continued into '05, and is still with us today in '06: Gas prices increased. Back then, it was bumping above $1.50 a gallon. So in '05, Pipas says, the number fell to 800,000 vehicles. Based on sales from the first six months of '06, which puts the segment off by about 20%, he sees '06 coming in at about 650,000 units. And going forward, what then? He candidly acknowledges that the market will tell, that there will likely continue to be a decline in the segment, but to what degree will simply unfold with time.

Which brings us to the 2007 Ford Expedition. Yes, a brand new full-sized SUV that is hitting the market when gas prices are at about $3.00 a gallon (or more). And there is a new model in the Expedition lineup, the EL, which is unique from the B-pillar on back (e.g., it has its own floor pan, one-piece body side, running boards, rear fascia, roof rack, rear quarter glass, doors, and more). As you may have guessed, the "EL" is extra long as compared with the standard Expedition: the wheelbase of the EL is 131 in. versus 119 in.; the overall length is 221.3 in. versus 206.5 in. Yes, it's a big vehicle. Looked at from the point of view of curb weight, the 4x4 Expedition EL comes in at 6,053 lb. That's a lot of truck.

According to Frank Davis, Ford Body on Frame Vehicle Programs Director, one of the things they did in making this new Expedition is to borrow cues from the best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup. The front end of the SUV has the same grille, high hood line, and power dome of the pickup. This borrowing continues to the inside of the vehicle, where the IP is familiar to the truck buyer.

The vehicle is based on a new chassis. It is a fully boxed frame that includes hydroformed front- and mid-section side rails; the boxed section thickness has been increased compared to the previous generation, and there is a new front geometry. This provides a 10% improvement in torsional rigidity and bending stiffness. In the back there is a five-link independent rear suspension, which Davis says not only provides a superior ride and handling setup, but also facilitates the flat folding of the third row seat (which can be done via pushbutton through the Powerfold option; the second row folds flat, too).

There are two aspects of the new vehicle that Davis emphasizes. One is the ride and handling. He claims, "This vehicle will make you a better driver." At least they've tuned the chassis, with an independent double-wishbone short- and long-arm front suspension and monotube shocks on all corners. A new variable-boost steering pump helps reduce steering efforts by 15%. The other aspect that he emphasizes is the overall quietness of the vehicle. They use Quiet Steel from Material Sciences Corporation (www.quietsteel.com) for the dash panel, the oil pan, and the front and rear inner and outer brake pad insulators. Also, they use a laminated windshield that is acoustically tuned to reduce wind noise.

The vehicle is powered by the 5.4-liter Triton V8, the cast-iron-block-and-aluminum-head engine built at the Windsor Engine Plant. It provides 300 hp @ 5,000 rpm and 365 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3,750 rpm. It is matched with a six-speed transmission; this combination contributes to a 9,200-lb. towing capacity.

Time will tell how the Expedition will do in the market. One thing that they're doing to help assure that it will do well is price it aggressively, which Frank Davis says is a part of the Way Forward Plan. The base MSRP for an '07 Expedition XLT is $29,995, which is down $5,485 from the '06 model. As Pipas puts it, "The pie isn't as big as it was, but it is still big." And they're working to get their slice.