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Ford on the Edge

WITH a name so apt it verges on a cosmic joke, the Ford Edge crossover utility vehicle debuted here Monday in a sun-flooded city plaza near the Embarcadero. On the edge, as it turns out, is just where Ford finds itself.

Though the miseries of Detroit rival General Motors are better known, Ford’s troubles are arguably deeper and more confounding. The company has stumbled in recent years as it has tried to right-size capacity in the face of plunging revenue and market share. In September, William Clay Ford Jr. -- Henry’s grandson -- stepped down as the company’s chief executive, turning the job over to former Boeing exec Alan Mulally. Ford lost $1.4 billion in the first half of 2006, and one analyst estimates the company’s North American operations will lose $4 billion by the end of the year.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 21, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Rumble Seat: The Rumble Seat column Wednesday in Highway 1 identified William Clay Ford Jr. as the grandson of automotive pioneer Henry Ford. He is the great-grandson of Henry Ford.

In response, the company is picking up the pace of its much-debated Way Forward program, which will mean the way out for as many as 30,000 U.S. workers. Shedding these workers, and closing nine plants by 2008, will align Ford’s production capacity with its future North American market share, says Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas. He estimates market share will stabilize around 15%. (Ford’s market share a decade ago was 25%.)

The Edge is only one vehicle (two, if you count the Lincoln clone MKX), and yet it arrives bearing huge expectations. “This is the most important vehicle launch for us this year,” Fields says. “The Edge will challenge people’s assumptions about Ford. It will even challenge their prejudices.”

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About those prejudices. Ford’s critics have complained the problem was that the company didn’t offer the right vehicle at the right price at the right time -- the Mustang being the exception that proves the rule. Well, the Edge is well-timed. The crossover utility segment, Ford execs are pleased to say again and again, is the fastest-growing in the market.

Design: The Edge is a terrific-looking piece of machinery, short-coupled and athletic, with a long, rakish windshield and handsome grill resembling a triple-bladed razor, the same face as on the Ford Fusion. With its large, well-tailored wheel arches, simplified geometry, high beltline, canted rear window and relatively narrow greenhouse (the glassy section of the car), the Edge has a deliberate and sporty stance that a lot of CUVs -- coming off as neutered SUVs -- are missing.

Value: The Edge is the sort of vehicle only a fully consolidated multinational car company can build. The bare bones of the platform were engineered by Mazda (Ford owns an interest) and are shared with that company’s upcoming CX-9 crossover. The vehicle is built at Ford’s factory in Oakville, Ontario, where because of savings afforded by Canadian healthcare, labor costs are approximately 25% cheaper than in a comparable U.S. plant. The six-speed automatic transmission is the product of a joint venture with GM. The 3.5-liter V6 Duratec engine is built at the company’s Lima, Ohio, facility. This new, cleaner and more powerful engine (265 hp in the Edge) will find wide and well-amortized use in many Ford products.

As a consequence of these savings, Ford has been able to offer more in the Edge, making it competitive with generously provisioned nameplates from Japan like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Mazda’s own CX-7. The decently equipped SE model sells for $25,995. - All-wheel drive is a $1,650 option. The premium SEL plus is stocked with fog lights, power-adjustable heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control and utility features such as the fold-flat front seat and release buttons in the cargo hold.

Our test vehicle was a maxed-out Edge SEL Plus with AWD ($36,070), including navigation and premium audio ($2,380), and the huge two-panel sunroof ($1,395). Standard on all Edges are power windows; power locks with remote keyless entry; MP3-capable audio; stability control; and front, side and side-curtain air bags.

Although the profits and losses of the Edge program might be insignificant in the grand scheme of Ford’s finances, the vehicle is hugely important as a symbol of the company’s future competitiveness. If the Edge is a hit, Ford partisans can breathe a little easier. If the Edge is a dud, it will seem to be the teaspoon that finally breeches the levee.

The good news for partisans is that the Edge is a very appealing, if not quite magical, bit of transportation. At its heart is the new all-alloy, 24-valve V6, which manages to put out a lot of power and torque (250 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm) with a minimum of noise and vibration. The Duratec engine’s former thrash and harshness has been largely subdued. This engine is also clean. It is PZEV-capable, Ford reports, and the Edge itself qualifies as a ULEV-II vehicle.

With this motor in the snout, the 2-ton Edge has a nice, punchy low-speed character and above-average onramp acceleration. I estimate the zero to 60 acceleration is in the high 7-second range. The six-speed transmission changes ratios fluidly and without fuss. Some might complain that it doesn’t have a manual-shift mode, and yet I expect most consumers never use that feature and won’t miss it.

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The whole point of the crossover segment is to offer drivers some of the versatility of SUVs without the extravagant fuel costs. The Edge obliges with highway mileage in the mid-20s.

As for driving dynamics, the Edge is reasonably cooperative and agile at moderate speeds but with little appetite for aggressive driving. Ford chassis engineers dialed back the vividness and stiffness of the Mazda platform by softening the suspension bushings, spring rates, strut valving and other “tune-ables.” The steering has moderate heft and is fairly responsive.

By far the most exemplary quality of the Edge is its ride refinement. The cabin ambience is hushed and serene even at supra-legal speeds. The wind and tire noise are well-smothered, and the compliance is excellent. The cabin is well- isolated from the road by a generous helping of couplings, rubber-mounted sub-frames and other mechanical measures that one can see if they look under the vehicle.

There are lots of things to love about the Edge. The optional switches that flip down the reclining rear seat backs are a great idea. Pod-heads will appreciate the various plugs and cubbies to accommodate their iPods. The center console is designed to receive a laptop computer. Cabin space is exceptional, especially rear seat legroom and cargo capacity.

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There is one huge thing to dislike about the Edge and that is the reflections on the windshield from the large dash area in front of the steering wheel. This is a problem with all such vehicles that have long, rakish windshields and upright seating, but in the Edge, these reflections were so pronounced as to become a safety issue. Some kind of non-reflective surface has to be installed on the dash.

It would appear that Ford is aware of the problem. In the test vehicles for this media event, the company provided -- without comment -- free polarized sunglasses, which cut about 90% of the glare. That was sneaky.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2007 Ford Edge

Base price: $25,995

Price, as tested: $36,070

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Powertrain: 3.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve, 60-degree V6 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive standard, all-wheel drive optional

Horsepower: 265 at 6,250 rpm

Torque: 250 at 4,500

Curb weight: 4,282 pounds

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0-60 mph: Less than 8 seconds

Wheelbase: 111.2 inches

Overall length: 185.7 inches

EPA fuel economy: Miles per gallon city not available, 25 mpg highway (FWD), 24 mpg (AWD); 87 Octane

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Final thoughts: Well honed


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