Lifestyle

First Drive: Ford's Edge


Ford needs a hit to lift its aging lineup. The all-new Edge crossover offers good looks and decent gas mileage, but the price isn't cheap

Ford executives, reeling from financial and market share declines and in the middle of another phase of restructuring, say the new Ford Edge crossover ute is by far the most important vehicle it will introduce this year. While it represents just one of 23 Ford brand models listed on such sites as Edmunds.com, the success of the Edge will be nothing short of a referendum on whether the struggling company and current management are on the right track.

Ford (F) is also launching an all-new Ford Expedition this fall, as well as a Mustang Shelby GT500 (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/9/06, "American Idol") and an all-wheel-drive version of the Fusion. Among its other brands, Volvo has an all-new S80 sedan and Lincoln is coming out with a crossover utility, the MKX, based on the Edge.

But it's the Edge that's drawing the stares from Wall Street, the media, Ford watchers, and the company's own management. That's because there is nothing more important than shoring up the Ford brand with a solid product that is launched with top-notch marketing.

First Big Move

Following on the successful launch and public reception of the Ford Fusion sedan last year, the Edge represents a "new Ford" that current management is banking on to do nothing less than save the company. It advances a new design theme that will be infused in all the new Fords, and is being brought to market with advertising and marketing meant to be more engaging than Ford's traditional flag-waving communications.

With demand for midsize and large SUVs waning as baby boomers age out of the desire for big, bulky truck-based vehicles, and with everybody wary of the return of high gas prices, Ford is moving to beef up its offerings of passenger cars and lighter so-called crossover utility vehicles that are based on cars instead of pickup-truck platforms. Putting aside the six-year-old Escape, which is more SUV than crossover, the Edge is the first big move by Ford in the growing segment.

Ford is playing catch-up in this segment that its executives say will likely top 3 million units per year by 2010, up from just 500,000 in 2000. Nissan (NSANY), Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC), General Motors (GM), and even Mitsubishi have been ahead of Ford on crossover offerings with models such as the Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Lexus RX330, Mitsubishi Outlander and Endeavor, Chevy Equinox, and Saturn Vue.

Strategic Errors

It has been a shocking shortcoming at Ford, a name that, because of its tradition and brand heritage, should have been doing a better job of leading the industry on defining the family car.

Ford long leaned on the Explorer as its "family car," and it proved extraordinarily popular throughout the '90s as many baby boomers opted for the high, commanding seating position and off-road utility image. Ford was so in love with the success and high profits of the Explorer, it allowed its once breakthrough Taurus sedan to wither into a scoffed-at rental car and never seriously pursued the minivan segment with a design that could compete with Chrysler or Honda.

So, what is the Edge? And is it any good?

What Is the Edge? One of a growing number of sporty-looking "crossover" vehicles. Unlike traditional SUVs, which are most often built on the same or similar chassis used on a pickup truck, the crossover typically shares a platform with cars. That gives it a softer, more comfortable ride that tends to be a bit closer to the ground than a big SUV. The Edge shares its underpinnings with the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, and Lincoln MKZ sedans, as well as the Mazda6.

What Isn't the Edge? It's not a legit off-road vehicle, though there is a version with all-wheel drive. There is a reason why Ford chose San Francisco streets and the nearby hills and valleys to show the car to journalists this week. It isn't an SUV that will handle much towing. It's not a replacement for a minivan. There are no plans for a third row of seats. That package can be found in the Explorer and the Freestyle crossover.

What's It Got? Seating for five. Six-way adjustable heated seats. An iPod jack. Generous storage for gear and groceries behind the back seat. Handy buttons in the rear storage areas that fold the 60/40 back seats down flat. Cupholders that are adequate for short and tall lattes (I recently drove a Mitsubishi whose cupholders were too deep to hold a short latte). Comfortable seating.

A first-rate interior layout with a satin-silver center stack and rich leather-look surfaces on the dash and doors. A bold looking toothy chrome grille that Ford has adopted as a signature. Optional navigation and Sirius radio. A cool panoramic glass roof that allows a sliding sunroof for front-seat passengers and a fixed moonroof for those in the rear seats. The engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 265 horsepower. A new six-speed automatic transmission helps fuel economy, which will be in the mid-20s for most.

How Does It Drive? The Edge is more pleasurable and refined than the Ford Explorer. I felt a connection to the Ford Fusion on which the Edge is based. As in the Fusion, there is a solid, but not stiff, feel to the vehicle. This is probably right for Ford, whose customers aren't looking for the same sporty ride that is found in, for example, the Mazda CX-7 crossover. Like a Subaru, for example, the Edge's optional AWD system constantly monitors and predicts traction needs and delivers needed torque to the rear wheels.

The Edge is quiet, though certainly not as quiet as, say, the much more expensive Lexus RX330. I only mention the Lexus because the Edge resembles the luxury crossover in profile. This is a nice piece of work. Suspension tuning and good workmanship on the frame give the Edge an almost Honda-like solidity and tautness. It actually feels as if Ford engineers could have gone further in dialing in more sportiness and had to hold back.

Pros: Styling—influenced, but not originated, by Ford North America's Peter Horbury—is the strength of the Edge. Ford calls it bold. Ford President Mark Fields even thinks it will polarize people. I'm not sure. To me, it's more like a really well-tailored suit. I like it better than the more audaciously styled Nissan Murano or the more utilitarian Toyota Highlander. There is a gorgeous "blazing copper" version that is a head-turner.

Cons: The transmission, which is a new design, seems to hunt around when you step on the gas. There's 265 horses under the bonnet, but I'm not sure they have the right harness. There's no manual transmission option, nor is there a "manu-matic" feature—becoming more common so would-be stick drivers can have more control over the gear shifts. There are no grab-handles in the front seat. I wish I had them when I was a passenger on the valley twisties.

And my 86-year-old mother will complain about their absence when she tries to get into the front seat. There's no electric opener for the rear hatch on the key fob. Three rear-seat headrests obscure the rear view, but generous side mirrors help make up for it.

What's It Cost? I priced an entry-level front-drive SE model, which does not have the panoramic roof or navigation system, and added Sirius radio on Edmunds.com for $26,075, including destination charges. The top of the line SEL with all-wheel drive, panoramic roof, navigation, Sirius, and rear-seat entertainment system priced out at a wallet-bending $36,484 on Edmunds.com.

How Many Will Ford Sell? Privately, Ford execs say they think they should sell about 100,000 a year. But they are hoping to sell more like 130,000 a year, so they can crow about overshooting expectations. Honda will sell about that many Pilots this year.

Would I Buy One? The styling catches my eye. And it looks better on the street than I remember from the auto shows. A properly equipped Edge is going to run anyone at least $30,000, which seems like a good value relative to competing models. My own preference for sportier driving would probably lead me to a Mazda CX-7 in this category. But I would recommend it. And with more vehicles like the Edge, the Ford brand may stage a healthy comeback.


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