NAIAS 2017: Ford Balances Excitement with More Sober Outlook

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Ford F150 NAIAS

Ford generated its share of excitement at the Detroit auto show this week, as usual. It introduced an improved version of the F-150 pickup truck, America’s best-selling vehicle. Ford also confirmed that it will be bringing back two iconic nameplates: the Bronco SUV and the Ranger mid-size pickup truck.

For good measure, Ford is showing off its ear-splitting, $400,000 Ford GT sports car at NAIAS again this year, demonstrating to those concerned that the auto industry has not lost touch with its performance fans even in the era of quiet, fuel-sipping electric cars that everyone wants to see driven by machines.

And Ford, which was the most-searched automotive brand by consumers in 2016, has made clear at CES and NAIAS that it has become an aggressive player in the forming market for ride-sharing, car-sharing and other mobility services. In addition, it wants to be strong in autonomous driving, where CEO Mark Fields has said Ford plans to field a completely self-driven vehicle within four years. And like other automakers, Ford is pushing hard for further electrification of its vehicle fleet so that it can meet stiffening US and California fuel-economy and emissions requirements—and have them available assuming that mainstream demand for EVs eventually picks up.

As part of Ford’s mobility plans, Fields shared more about the brand’s vision for the City of Tomorrow that was unveiled in November.

Ford City of Tomorrow

At the same time, Fields this week has been tapping the brakes on immediate expectations for Ford, for its sales and prospects for the year ahead.

The company began taking a dimmer view of the near-term future of the US auto market last summer, when it controlled production and kept inventories in check in anticipation that 2016 overall car sales might not match last year’s record. Meanwhile, cross-town rival General Motors took a more optimistic view, with its production figures underscoring that.

Sure, GM has had to close a few small-car plants this month for a week or two. But automotive CEOs at the Detroit auto show seem to be coalescing around the view now that 2017 US sales could be at least as good as 2016, in which sales came in at a record for the seventh consecutive years, at 17.55 million vehicles.

For its part, Ford is sticking with a rather sober view of 2017. Fields said in a presentation at Deutsche Bank’s global automotive conference that he expects lower profitability for Ford’s auto operations this year, in part because of investments in new-era services and technologies—as well as in 11 new product launches planned globally for this year.

But, Fields said in his presentation, Ford expects its profitability to strengthen in 2018 due to its ongoing efforts to strengthen current product pillars such as its F Series truck line and SUVs, and to optimize weak areas of the business such as the Lincoln brand, and small cars sold abroad.

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