Ford and Australia are very much intertwined – the association stretches nearly ninety years now, and has seen CKD assembly from humble beginnings evolve into the design and manufacture of homegrown, market-specific models such as the Falcon and Territory.
From its initial position as an outpost, the country emerged to become the flag bearer for the Blue Oval in the region. In more recent times, however, significant growth in the Asian region – and new manufacturing facilities there – plus the emergence of China has taken away much of the gloss from Australia, and changing market conditions over the past decade haven’t helped Ford Australia’s cause either.
Plummeting sales over the years inevitably led to the decision in 2013 to cease its local manufacturing operations in Australia by end-2016 – production of the final iteration of the Falcon, the FG facelift and SZ Territory Mk II SUV will come to an end when the automaker’s Broadmeadows and Geelong plants are shuttered in October 2016.
A transformation plan for the market has been outlined, and the marketing and retail side of Ford Australia is set to go on an aggressive product cadence, albeit with new, different faces – the company recently announced that 2015 will be a banner year, with introductions of a slew of new or refreshed vehicles.
Leading the line will be the sixth-gen Mustang, (which arrives in Malaysia early 2016) in both coupe and convertible forms. Australia will be a significant market for the new pony car in the Asia-Pacific region – actually, it is set be the most sizeable, as the car plugs into the slot the ageing Falcon will leave behind, even if they are very different beasts. More than 15,000 expressions of interest for the S550 have already been registered, so that tells you how well the car is expected to do there.
Also on the list are the new Mondeo, updated Kuga, recently unveiled third-gen Everest, the soon-to-debut Ranger T6 facelift and third-gen Focus facelift. The facelifted C346 Focus ST is also set to arrive in Australia next year, which brings about the question if it will be coming to Malaysia to continue its run, given that the stock of the pre-facelift Focus ST has been exhausted.
So, the retail side of things looks set to progress, and visibly at that, but the company has also been keen to highlight the quieter, but no less important aspect, of its operations, which is its growth as a regional hub for research and development.
The Blue Oval has been investing heavily in Australia – last year alone, AUD$340 million was poured into product research and development facilities in the country, bringing the company’s total R&D investment there over the past seven years to more than AUD$2.2 billion.
Highlighting the R&D side of things and Ford Australia’s growing role in product development for the region provides the basis of this story, though this was very cleverly masked within an Innovation for Millions showcase the company held in Ford Australia’s Lara/You Yangs Proving Ground, a sprawling 2,300 acre testbed and research centre outside of Melbourne.
The IFM event displayed technologies such as the company’s EcoBoost engine line up and safety tech in the form of the world’s first rear inflatable aeatbelt, as well as active safty systems such as Ford’s Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), Cross Traffic Alert and Active City Stop, the latter trio through demonstrations. Enhanced Active Park Assist, which enables perpendicular hands-free parking on top of the parallel parking system found now, was also shown.
The sampling of Cross Traffic Alert and Enhanced Active Park Assist – accomplished in a Ford Mondeo – impressed in their simulated trials, the latter parking the Mondeo spot-on in the parking box. It’s not all automated though – the system takes care of the all the steering, but the driver still needs to provide shifting, acceleration and brake input. Works well, though.
As for Cross-Traffic Alert, that works in tandem with BLIS and scans 20 metres in each direction – the equivalent of seven parking spaces – in order to warn drivers of approaching vehicles when backing out of a parking spot. The current system only provides warning and not stop intervention (the user still has to brake), but there are plans to work on incorporating automated braking. Neat thing to have, really, as many a KL driver would no doubt agree.
Also shown at the event was SYNC2, the second-generation of the company’s in-car communications and entertainment system. Such is the speed of progress that just as the MyFord-based system has rolled out in Australian models, the automaker has now announced SYNC3, which will arrive in US model year 2016 cars. The latter ditches the Microsoft operating system currently in place, and replaces it with Blackberry’s QNX system.
In any case, SYNC2, which is controlled by voice as well as through commands issued through an eight-inch, high-res touchscreen, is already a significant step up from the SYNC seen in current models in the Malaysian line-up.
There’s a more comprehensive set of functions/control available, including using natural language commands such as “warmer” to turn up the air-conditioning, or saying “temperature 20 degrees” for more specificity. Additionally, a full address is no longer required for a point of interest location, and accessing music from an attached compatible smartphone or MP3 player has also become easier.
Of course, SYNC3 – which also uses an eight-inch screen – takes things even further along, being faster and more intuitive in use. Its debut here may take some time though.
Besides the host of working tech, product development was also subtly highlighted, aside from the shout given to the Ford Everest. Shown at the event in its Concept form, aspects of the Australian-led development of the new seven-seater‘s were underscored. Less so, the upcoming Ford Ranger facelift, though the number of disguised prototype mules within You Yangs provided plenty of visual notice.
The new Ford Escort – developed by Ford’s Asia Pacific design team in Australia together with the company’s Research and Engineering Centre in Nanjing – was also seen at the facility undergoing final trials in its production-ready form (the car was initially previewed at Auto China in April).
There was even the chance to get into one, which was undergoing NVH/suspension testing in one of the test chambers. It’s not the prettiest shape externally, but the Escort’s interior is quite the trick – plastics are decent, and the simple layout of the dashboard is very easy on the eye. And, as far as cabin space goes, it’s significantly roomier – especially at the back – than that on the Focus.
As far as technological offerings stacked up at the IFM event, the star of the show was undoubtedly the new Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE) lab housed in the Virtual Reality Centre at You Yangs – the facility is one of two primary FiVE labs (the other is in Dearborn, Michigan). There are other centres in Germany, China, India, Brazil and Mexico, but these are collaboration centres.
It’s nothing more than a dark-walled room with motion-capture technology, stereoscopic 3D displays and an array of computer gear, the FiVe lab, but what a show it puts on. Shades of Oculus Rift come to mind – the system employed by Ford uses a virtual reality head-mounted display identical to those used in the animation and gaming industry to provide designers and testers with a life-like experience of virtual vehicles.
With the VR headset in place, users move through the room in a manner that they can interact with the virtual vehicle the same way they would in real life. The headset even provides a view into the physical world, so the user can see his or her body in relation to the virtual data.
The system allows Ford engineers and designers around the world to quickly transition between different virtual design proposals to examine and select the best option, and enables designers to build a full-size virtual car years before a customer gets behind the wheel.
Making use of sophisticated shadows and real-world lighting conditions, the process ensures that all production vehicles can be painstakingly reviewed for usability, consistency and design effects. In the case of the new Mustang, the system even helped identify an improved windscreen rake well before the car was finalised.
Originally launched in 2012, the lab was given a significant upgrade earlier this year. The comprehensive overhaul updated the lab’s hardware and software, including a move to new photo-realistic virtual-reality software (VRED) to present a view in ultra-high definition, or four times the resolution of HD. A 4K-resolution display offers a high level of detail at which engineers can inspect issues that arise throughout vehicle development
Also installed, greatly expanded motion-tracking equipment equivalent to that used in the animation/gaming industry, as well as a significantly expanded physical footprint to the lab itself. The new space is now large enough to amply “fit” an entire virtual car, enabling designers to perform “walkarounds” and experience the virtual model much like a consumer would experience a car at a dealership.
In use, the system is breathtaking in its scope. There’s great dimensionality and perspective, and the level of detail on view is astounding. It was amazing to do a walkaround of the Mustang well before I eventually saw it in the metal, even managing to put my head into the engine block to view the pistons in detail, something that wouldn’t have been possible in the real world, well, short of a mishap at least, and I doubt that I’d get to see that much at that point.
Some visual latency is still evident, which precludes long periods of use for most users, but the first-rate level of realism and detail is unbeatable. Mercedes-Benz has also begun exploring the VR route, but its system – as shown by a sampling of that one at the company’s North American R&D centre in Sunnyvale – has far less resolution on call, and it’s also not currently employed to study vehicle design in the same manner.
Culminating the event was a driving session at You Yangs, not on the facility’s 4.8 km-long high-speed parabolic track (which was being used by Everest mules), but on the high-speed ride and handling course on the inside of that. Ford Australia brought out pretty much of its entire current model line-up, including the Focus ST and Fiesta ST.
Two laps each (with another two laps later, being taken around the course by the Ford test drivers) may not be much, but provided a good indicator to the Fiesta ST’s workings in relation to its bigger sibling. Being familiar with the Focus ST probably helped – the car behaved in exactly the fashion I’d expected it to.
A quick aside on the other solitary car that was sampled before them – the chance to get behind the wheel of a manual Fiesta EcoBoost proved too good to resist. The hatchback proved spirited and willing, quite the fun thing to drive, even if the iB5 gearbox continued to exhibit its familiar rubbery shifter. Shame SDAC isn’t bringing this one in.
Back to the ST duo. The Focus didn’t do badly at all over the course, but felt heavy-set in curves that the Fiesta ST simply carved through, essentially missing the deftness and agility the smaller three-door showed over the course. Conversely, the Focus was less bumpy and felt better planted down the straight.
At You Yangs, with comfort not being paramount though, there was no denying which one proved more alluring – its levels of tenacious front-end grip, allied to an outstanding ability to handle mid-corner transitions in rapid, razor-like fashion, made the Fiesta ST a standout. The test drive of the car here in Malaysia validates the initial observations – our review on it will be out soon, and without spoiling anything, let’s just say we’ve got a surprise in store for that one.
The IFM showcase served to parade the Blue Oval’s technology, and that it did, but it also showed that despite manufacturing coming to a stop in Australia, it’s definitely not the end of the world for the brand Down Under. A new, expanded model line-up promises improvement to the retail side of things, while R&D and product development – for a wider, more global audience – is set to come to the forefront in larger fashion. Every cloud has a silver lining, indeed.