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Ford Drives All-Wheel-Drive

All-wheel-drive for the masses?

All-wheel-drive for the masses? Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but people at Ford Motor Co. are working to put more vehicles with all-wheel-drive (AWD) on the road in greater numbers than, say, is practical/possible via companies like Audi and Mercedes. Ford is offering AWD on its ‘05 Ford Five Hundred, Freestyle, and Mercury Montego vehicles, and early indications are that customers are selecting that tick box on the option sheet, with 23% of the Five Hundreds, 55% Freestyles, 34% Montegos sold in the first four months of availability so equipped. One interesting aspect of this is that the cars are ordinarily front-wheel-drive; the AWD system is automatically activated when wheel slip is detected by sensors. The system being used is the same used by Volvo, the HALDEX system (tuned and adjusted to the particular vehicle). It employs an electrohydraulic pump to rapidly move power from front to rear: If the front wheels slip by just 1/7 of their diameter, the system moves power to the rear. Ford vehicles with AWD also have all-speed traction control (which adjusts both braking and engine control). Which means that 100% of the vehicle’s torque can be sent to whichever wheel has traction.
Ford will be making AWD available on the forthcoming Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, and Lincoln Zephyr sedans, as well. According to Phil Martens, Ford vp of Product Creation, they’ve determined that there is a discernable shift by some customers out of SUVs and into large sedans. Yet, Martens notes, those customers still want the amenities as are found in SUVs, such as AWD—and not just in the snow states. Plans call for Ford to have an annual volume of 500,000 units by the end of 2007, of which 400,000 will be car-based units. Martens says they’re confident that the AWD system will be perceived in the market as a competitive advantage.

Part of the AWD story for Ford has a lot to do with the cost vis-à-vis competitive systems. For example, according to its comparative figures, a Five Hundred SE AWD can be obtained for $24,595. They contrast it with a Chrysler 300 Touring AWD at $29,995 and the Volkswagen Passat GLX 4Motion at $33,190.

Will the increase in AWD offerings drive the price down still lower? Martens doesn’t think so: “All-wheel-drive is not sensitive to economies of scale because it is essentially a manufacturing-driven, gear-grinding, process.” In other words, the price of gear grinding is pretty much the price. Once you have the capacity to produce X-gears, producing X + 1 won’t cut that price in a big way.

Still, anyone who has had the experience of driving an AWD vehicle on snow and ice may think the option is worth the price—and then some.—GSV