Ford (F) faces plenty of challenges, but one of its big sleepers is a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation of some older-model F-150 pickup trucks. The probe has already led to a recall and an expanded inquiry.
The good news is that this isn't likely to mushroom into the equivalent of Toyota's (TM) Great Recall of 2010. The bad news for Ford, though, is that it's happening at all. Its 2004-06 F-150s have an airbag issue and have been recalled, while 1997-2001 F-150s may have something amiss with their gas tanks and haven't yet been recalled. Overall, NHTSA's efforts has affected more than 4 million trucks. And you can bet Ford is concerned, because the F-150 has been the best-selling ride in the U.S. for more than 30 years.
Recall versus no recall, Toyota versus Ford
Although the numbers are Toyota-esque, Ford is dealing with a much less troubling scenario here than what Toyota confronted last year. For starters, everyone already seems to know what's causing the problems. In the case of the older F-150s and their gas tanks, it's just a failing strap. Not something you want to be failing in that area of your truck, but not something that would be totally unexpected in vehicles that could be as much as 14 years old.
On the airbag recall, a bad circuit is evidently at fault -- and the truck will actually warn drivers, perhaps inadvertently, that their airbag could prematurely deploy.
When Toyota was confronting twice as many recalls on some its own most popular vehicles, the causes of sudden unintended acceleration were more cryptic. Floor mats? Driver error? Electronic throttle controls? Solving the mystery -- or proving that there wasn't one -- created a fearfulness around Toyota that the company still hasn't been able to shake.
Still, this is the F-150
Don't expect Ford to mess around on this front, however, and assume that everything will be OK simply because the new 2011 F-150 just got a nice pat on the back for safety. This is the truck that's at the absolute heart of Ford. Even as the company brands itself as producing a new generation of fuel-efficient, smaller vehicles for international consumers, it continues to rely on the F-150 for big profit margins.
Remember, Ford went to battle with Ferrari simply because it thought the Italian sport car maker infringed on the F-150 name.
So even if many of the '97-'01 pickups are nearing the ends of their practical lifespans, what matters here is protecting the F-150 reputation. The whole point of selling someone an F-150 is making damn sure that you sell them another one when they're ready to make that move.
People are paying closer attention to recalls now
Prior to Toyota's struggles, recalls used to come and go in the auto industry, and they often happened under the radar. But all it takes it a really big one to get everyone's attention again.
Ford went through this itself in the late early 2000s with a massive recall of its Explorer SUV due to rollover risks. Of course, back then, the Internet wasn't as widespread and social media basically didn't exist. Toyota's critical error was that it underestimated how quickly brand loyalty could be wrecked on the shoals of Twitter and Facebook -- not to mention dozens of blogs that tracked the recall on a nearly minute-by-minute basis.
Enough goodwill to ride it out
Another factor to consider is that the F-150 is somewhat bulletproof. A huge recall could happen, but it would probably take ten major recalls to significantly damage the pickup's image. In any case, Ford is taking a wait-and-see attitude for now. I checked with spokesperson Wes Sherwood, who promptly emailed me the following:
We are fully cooperating with the government as they review the matter and are not aware of any injuries related to this condition.The brevity is a good indication of just how seriously Ford is taking NHTSA's actions. When the government makes a decision, Ford may feel more comfortable providing additional comment. For now, saying too much will make a non-recall look like an official one.
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