CC Newsstand/QOTD: Ford’s Rollout Of The 2020 Ford Explorer And Lincoln Aviator Isn’t Off To A Good Start. But Is Vehicle Reliability All That Important?

With Ford’s passenger car lineup going the way of the Dodo bird, its crossovers and utility vehicles are more important than ever. The Blue Oval beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. And that past is littered with poor quality control and fundamentally defective transmissions. The problems concern early examples of the new Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. It seems there are teething issues with the platform. To make matters worse, Chicago Assembly itself is part of the problem.

To say that the initial launch of the Explorer did not go according to plan is a bit of an understatement. The problems associated with the new platform contributed to a massive loss in sales for the nameplate, which plummeted 48 percent this year compared to the same period in 2018. Model changeovers almost always contribute to a decrease in sales, but generally not on the scale that the Explorer experienced. In recent years the Explorer repeatedly sold well over 200k units annually, so any bottleneck for the three row isn’t good. And the problems sound pretty grisly. From the Detroit Free Press:

A source involved with Explorer repairs at the plant said problems include:

  • Explorer chassis issues. X-rays are being used to try to diagnose problems.
  • Explorer transmission-related questions that prevent the vehicle from going into park or properly sensing the vehicle is in park. Some transmissions are not going into park and the computer is automatically activating the parking brake. Also, the computer cannot determine whether the vehicle is going into park properly and then not activating the brake, which means the vehicles are rolling away.
  • Explorer and Aviator air-conditioning systems that blow heat only.
  • Aviator suspension issues. The new system has auto leveling, which drops the vehicle down slightly when it’s unlocked and approached. But they’re arriving with suspensions in failure mode.

Ford sources say they’re puzzled by even mundane situations, such as missing emblems and trim pieces and having the wrong wheels.

Ford shipped many of the troublesome models to Flat Rock Assembly Plant, which ostensibly produces the Mustang and Lincoln Continental. Having Flat Rock sort out quality issues isn’t anything new. Early versions of the 2013 Lincoln MKZ were diverted to the plant to prevent defective models reaching dealerships. There were never any widespread issues with that sedan, but from personal experience, learning about these issues when you’ve got a list of customers interested in the car can be very frustrating. Especially when those shoppers end up buying at the larger dealerships that get prioritized when supply is tight.

Things are a little bit different with the Explorer. The plant required a significant overhaul due to the shift to a completely new rear-wheel drive platform. The incredibly toxic work environment hasn’t helped things either. From Bloomberg:

Ford spent a combined $1 billion upgrading its 95-year-old assembly plant and 63-year-old stamping factory in Chicago, outfitting them with advanced manufacturing technology to produce the Explorer, Aviator and Police Interceptor Utility.

Those investments included $40 million to upgrade lighting and add security at the plants, where some employees have experienced sexual and racial harassment. In August 2017, the company agreed to pay as much as $10.1 million to settle claims following an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ford faced similar charges at the Chicago factories in 1999 that led to a $17.5 million settlement.

Consumer Reports recently purchased a new Lincoln Aviator that’s been a bit…quirky. They now own a Lincoln with a wonky digital dash and they’ve talked about it repeatedly on their podcast.

To be fair to Ford, every automaker experiences issues with new or redesigned vehicles. And by all accounts the 2020 Escape/Corsair launch is going smoothly. Based on a cursory inventory search of all the local Ford dealers in my area, the bottleneck issues appear to be a thing of the past. But the company’s recently received a lot of press about the poor reliability of their products. The Explorer is one of Ford’s most popular vehicles, right behind the Escape in sales and ahead of a whole bunch of other stuff. If Ford can’t get the basic stuff right, why should customers give Ford a chance on something they’ve either never built before, like the upcoming fully electric SUV, or a product which they haven’t produced in a long time, like the Bronco?

Unfortunately, it seems like Ford remains committed to the F-150 and F-150 adjacent vehicles only, while sidelining everything else. The Expedition and Navigator didn’t experience any issues upon their debut. But they have the advantage of being built right alongside the F-250. And it seems all hand are on deck when their is a problem in the F-Series lineup.

The question is, does any of this matter? As I mentioned in my earlier piece, the Explorer has shrugged off negative press and middling reviews in the past. Car And Driver, Edmunds, and Motor Trend all performed their own comparison tests pitting the new Korean siblings against the 2020 Explorer and the Ford lost every time. That being said, the Explorer received positive reviews from all three of those publications, and some other reviewers were even more enthusiastic about the three row. The Lincoln Aviator earned even higher accolades.

Even if the Explorer and Aviator are unreliable in their current forms, it might not be a big deal. Vehicles seem to do alright if they offer something customers want. A good looking vehicle that has decent cargo capacity, drives well, boasts a cabin where buyers want to spend time, and is priced competitively has a solid chance at succeeding. How else can you explain FCA’s ability to move metal? Both J.D. Power and Consumer Reports consistently show that the company makes unreliable vehicles. Yet Jeep is doing better than ever. And the Ram 1500 recently booted the Silverado to third place in the full size pickup segment.

It seems like desirability is the path to success, at least for automakers. If the Big Three developed cars with average reliability, cheaper interiors, and less refined rides but constantly updated or redesigned them, would they have lost as much market share as they did? From the 1980s onward, the American models that received the least amount of updating were the ones that did poorly. The fourth generation Taurus experienced a substantial drop in sales after the 2002 model year, which is when Honda and Toyota introduced newer versions of the Accord and Camry, respectively. But the Fusion brought back a lot of customers into the fold. The third and fourth generation Explorers hemorrhaged sales during their runs but buyers responded positively to the fifth generation to the point where it vaulted to the top of its class.

FCA bucked this trend with its older vehicles, most notably the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger, and Dodge Durango. And it’s not like those vehicle improved their reliability over time. They’re still ranked poorly by Consumer Reports for their build quality. But they’ve also been consistently updated. That really seems to be the key to keeping  customers. Obviously, reliability has played a role in the past and will continue to do so in the future. But appeal seems to matter most, at least in very broad terms.

Anyway, that’s what I think. What’s your take on vehicle reliability/dependability/whatever you want to call it? Any new vehicles cool enough to earn your business, despite their poor track record?

Related Reading:

COAL/QOTD: 2005 Scion xB – What’s been your most reliable car? – Paul Niedermeyer

Consumer Reports Predicted Reliability for 2017 – Paul Niedermeyer