CC Newsstand: Judge Orders Former Ford CEO Mark Fields To Testify In Court Over Ongoing Powershift Transmission Lawsuit

Ford’s Powershift transmission is most likely the company’s biggest mistake of the last decade. The dual clutch unit permanently damaged the reputation of the Fiesta and Focus, and is likely one of the top reasons why Ford opted to cancel both models for the American market. Several lawsuits from disgruntled owners morphed into a sizable class action case not too long ago, but the initial settlement is now being appealed by the plaintiffs, who argue that Ford knew about the problems early into the Powershift’s development. The judge overseeing the case recently ordered former CEO Mark Fields to testify about the transmission by July 31st. His testimony could have major implications for the company going forward.

Initially touted as the ideal solution for customers who wanted top notch fuel economy and a sporty driving experience, Ford’s dual clutch transmission quickly made headlines for the frustration it caused many customers. Although it debuted in 2010 on the 2011 model year Fiesta, the issues multiplied with the 2012 Focus, which was introduced one year later. Rumor has it that the Powershift is much more trouble prone in the Focus than in the Fiesta.

It’s likely that a portion of the complaints can be attributed to the public’s unfamiliarity with dual clutch transmissions, but for Ford, their units suffered numerous defects that still haven’t been fully resolved. Early builds suffered from leaky seals on the gearbox that allowed oil to enter the transmission, which is a “dry” dual clutch setup that shouldn’t have any fluids in certain areas. There were also problems with heat and the “clutch material” that led to about six revisions to the clutches themselves. The number of owners affected by these issues led to Ford extending the warranty on the input shaft seals, the clutches themselves, and any software calibrations necessary for an additional two years and 40,000 miles, which means that owners are covered for seven years and 100,000 miles total.

Aside from a separate problem with the Transmission Control Module, Ford hasn’t extended the warranty on later models, and Ford’s basic five year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty is most certainly starting to expire for the owners of 2014 and later units. That’s the reason why this lawsuit is rapidly gaining traction.

The initial settlement was reached in mid-2017 and was the uh, “focus” of an episode of Lehto’s Law, where he explained that the relief afforded to owners was actually pretty decent. But the settlement only applies to owners who can demonstrate they had to repeatedly bring their car back in for repair. And there was no admission by Ford of any wrongdoing, nor did they extend the warranty on the affected models.

But if Ford knew about the issues before the cars were released to the public, that opens up a whole new can of worms. Every single current and former owner of a Fiesta or Focus would likely qualify for relief. And Ford would likely be forced to initiate some type of buyback program or major warranty extension for those affected. Having the former CEO testify under oath could be the potential smoking gun that the plaintiff’s lawyers need to win the case. To make matters even more interesting, Fields might not have much incentive to defend his former employer, as he was unceremoniously fired after trying to pin the company’s poor stock performance on the extremely popular Joe Hinrichs, then President of the Americas. Hinrichs now serves as President of Ford and has been credited with Ford’s recent quality gains.

These developments are a bit personal for me, as I purchased a brand new 2013 Ford Focus SE with the Powershift transmission over six years ago. I have not had any issues with mine, but I’ve only put 25,000 miles on it so far. If my car doesn’t qualify for a clutch replacement (there’s a specific test for it) I’ll probably sell or trade it in on or shortly after February 2020, which is when my extended warranty expires. I’ve started a retrospective on the 2012-2018 Focus, which I’ll have out after I’ve completed this year’s NY auto show coverage, so stay tuned.

Ford isn’t the first company to experience issues with a dual clutch transmission. Volkswagen, Honda, FCA, and Hyundai have all had to issue service bulletins and/or revise their respective units over the last several years. But the Blue Oval clearly mishandled the situation, and now it’s entirely possible their ineptitude will come back to haunt them even more than it already has.