By Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co is turning to the automotive marketer's time-tested themes, speed and power, to sell a new generation of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles to mass market customers.
Ford this week showed off a hybrid Ford Explorer it is selling to U.S. police departments that combines a six cylinder engine with a lithium-ion battery, an electric motor and a 10-speed transmission to deliver 318 horsepower and speed that can outrun police vehicles equipped with a larger V-8, company executives said.
The Police Interceptor Explorer is a niche model. But highlighting a hybrid vehicle's speed and functional capability is the strategy Ford intends to deploy broadly as the company begins offering hybrid systems across its highest-volume models over the next three years.
The new Explorer and Escape hybrid SUVs are due to hit showrooms later this year, and a hybrid F-150 pickup is scheduled for 2020.
In the past, Ford promoted hybrids such as the C-Max by stressing fuel economy. As fuel prices dropped over the past decade, sales of many fuel efficient cars, including hybrids, sagged. U.S. consumers have been paying premiums instead for larger vehicles that offer more horsepower and towing capacity.
That market trend now is guiding Ford's substantial bet on hybrids, combining high performance with the technology to meet tougher emissions rules in China, Europe and the United States, company executives said.
"With us and others, it was strictly around fuel economy," David Filipe, Ford vice president for powertrain engineering, told Reuters. "If we are now able to show the customer they can get more from an electrified product, that will be the recipe," Filipe said.
Ford is investing $11 billion plan to deliver 40 hybrid and fully electric vehicles by 2022.
Ford has developed two new hybrid drive systems. One is for smaller models like the Escape compact SUV. The other connects a 44-horsepower electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack to a 10-speed automatic transmission, and will be used for larger vehicles like the Explorer and F-150.
Both systems are designed to fit multiple models, and those vehicles in turn can be sold with or without hybrid drive. In the Explorer and F-150, the same 10-speed transmission can be used without the electric motor by substituting part of the drive shaft and little else.
The battery pack for the 2020 Escape's hybrid system, launching this fall, fits under the floor, instead of hogging space in the rear cargo compartment, as in prior Escape hybrids. The 2020 battery pack, built by Ford, is less than half the size of the older one.
To promote new hybrid models, Ford is using lessons from the company's successful effort to persuade F-150 buyers in the United States that a turbocharged six-cylinder engine could deliver superior performance to fuel-thirsty V-8 engines that dominated the large pickup segment for decades, Filipe said.
Ford created the "EcoBoost" brand of turbo-charged engines, and promoted the 3.5-liter, six-cylinder EcoBoost sold in the F-150 as more powerful and able to tow heavier trailers than many traditional V-8s.
The automaker charges $1,600 (1,254 pounds) to $2,595 to install a 3.5-liter EcoBoost, depending on the F-150 model. Including a smaller, less expensive six-cylinder now offered as the standard motor on certain F-series models, EcoBoost engines now power nearly 70 percent of F-150s sold, Filipe said.
Ford will also charge more for its new hybrid models. An Explorer Limited with a 3.3 litre hybrid engine will cost U.S. buyers $4,150 more than a model with a four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, according to Ford's consumer website.
Ford has not released official fuel efficiency ratings for the 2020 Explorer hybrid, but the company has said the vehicle should deliver more than 500 miles (805 km) of driving with a 19.3 gallon tank, indicating it can achieve about 26 miles per gallon compared to 20 in combined city and highway driving for a current, six-cylinder gasoline model.
Toyota Motor Corp's, smaller Highlander hybrid SUV is rated at 29 miles per gallon in combined driving, with a 499-mile range.
Toyota, the leader in hybrid vehicle technology, plans to deploy gasoline-electric power systems across its lineup, including more SUVs. However, other automakers, including Ford's arch-rival General Motors Co and Volkswagen AG, are focussing on developing all-electric vehicles to meet regulatory and consumer demands in all major world markets.
(Reporting by Joe White; Editing by Tom Brown)