The move comes during a summer that has seen gasoline prices reach record high levels in some areas and two months after Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. startled the auto industry by saying SUVs are environmentally unfriendly gas chuggers.
"SUV customers are asking for more fuel-efficient vehicles," Ford chief executive officer Jac Nasser said in a statement. "Our strategy is to maintain and enhance the function of their SUVs while making substantial fuel economy improvements."
In briefing the media, Ford executives said the automaker will improve fuel economy mostly by using advanced technology on the SUVs it already sells, reducing weight, improving aerodynamics and making engines and transmissions more efficient.
"There will be attention to every nut and bolt," said Jim Clark, chief engineer at the Ford Research Lab. "There's not a single silver bullet."
Clark said about 70 percent of the improvements will come through technology and about 30 percent from the introduction of new products that will change the mix of SUVs Ford sells.
Ford said earlier this year it would introduce a version of its Escape compact SUV powered by a gasoline/electric hybrid system, which the company says will get better mileage than any of its other SUVs. Ford's fleet currently averages 20.7 miles per gallon. The Escape is being shipped to dealers now.
"It really is starting with what customers want," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford's vice president of environmental safety. "They'd like to have greater range in their vehicles so they don't have to stop as often" to refill the tank.
Ford is convinced Americans want to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and will steer their purchases to companies they perceive as environmentally responsible.
"This is customer-driven environmental responsibility," Nasser said. "We aren't asking our customers to compromise safety, performance or functionality."
Ford says an average SUV owner will use 1,700 fewer gallons of gas -- or about $2,400 worth -- through the life of the improved vehicles.
Ford will not pass on the extra cost of higher fuel economy at first, betting instead that improved fuel economy will increase sales enough to offset lower profits on each vehicle.
SUVs and other light trucks have been the source of much of Ford's profits over the past several years. But at its shareholders' meeting last spring, the company distributed a 98-page book, Connecting With Society, in which Ford conceded SUVs burn more gas and emit more pollution than cars and can pose a danger to smaller vehicles in crashes.
Other automakers have made smaller moves toward higher fuel economy. General Motors Corp. has improved the gas mileage of its full-size SUVs and pickup trucks by percent over the last three years.
DaimlerChrysler AG has said it is ready to sell a gas/electric version of its Dodge Durango SUV if Congress passes a $3,000 tax credit to make such a vehicle comparable in price with current models.
By Nedra Pickler