Freestyle and Five Hundred: Ford Gets Two for One

With the introduction of the Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover, Ford has achieved what might be the most clever bit of platform manipulation in its history.

With the introduction of the Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover, Ford has achieved what might be the most clever bit of platform manipulation in its history. Using a largely common body structure, the company has designed two vehicles that look completely different and should appeal to distinctly different market segments–the Five Hundred to traditional big sedan customers and the Freestyle to minivan and SUV owners looking for something more carlike–deftly getting around the traditional problem of common-platform vehicles being look-alikes that cannibalize each other's customers.

Ford started with Volvo's P2 platform which underpins vehicles as diverse as the S80 sedan and XC90 SUV, and is one of the three key building blocks in Ford's future product strategy (see "Three's A Company," AD&P, September 2004), and modified it to create the Freestyle. It then did the reverse of the traditional sedan-to-wagon development and used the Freestyle as the basis for the Five Hundred. Chris O'Conner, crash safety supervisor for the vehicles, estimates that the amount of design work needed to morph the Freestyle into the Five Hundred was only half of what it took to modify the P2 for the Freestyle. And given that the P2 was a robust platform to begin with, Ford essentially got two cars for the development cost of one. Which is not to say that Ford's engineers didn't have to design some significant modifications. In the front, the P2's octagonal frame rails had to be extended to accommodate the Duratec 30 V6 engine, since Volvo uses thinner transverse-mounted inline engines. (Why octagonal? Because loads are concentrated in the corners, so the more corners you have the better the load distribution. O'Conner says round rails would be best, but are difficult to mount components to.) And with the V6 in place, tests showed that the rails tended to twist more during frontal impact, so a new bumper plate was created to mitigate that effect. Changes in the rear go even further. Because the Freestyle has a stow-in-floor third seat, the rear frame rails had to be splayed out to the sides to make room. In addition, Ford added reinforcements that allow the vehicles to meet upcoming FMVSS 208 rear impact standards–something even safety-minded Volvo had not yet incorporated. O'Connor sums up the changes this way: "If the front is a cousin [to the P2] then the rear is a pretty distant relative."

Still, even these modifications are minor when compared to the bulk of the proven engineering Ford gained with the P2, like load paths that connect and stretch throughout the vehicle to dissipate crash forces; a rigid system of steel rings that surround and protect the passenger cabin, and the SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) tube that helps absorb side impacts. But the piece of technology that makes this platform-sharing strategy work out so well is the electro-hydraulic all-wheel-drive (AWD) system engineered by Volvo and its supplier Haldex that uses an electronically controlled limited-slip coupling to transfer torque to the rear wheels. Ford executives say that the company has long wanted a sedan with AWD, (which they see as a key market differentiator) but found that modifying the Taurus or Crown Victoria would be too costly. Now they will gain AWD in the new flagship sedan as well as in the crossover, where some off-road capability is a must.

On the manufacturing side, the high commonality between the two vehicles gives the Chicago Assembly Plant a great deal of flexibility in adjusting the production mix between the two based on sales. Stated plant capacity is 290,000 units/year. And though Ford executives decline to give the planned production split, they make it clear that the totally refurbished plant, which features electric weld robots capable of accommodating two platforms and eight distinct models, has the flexibility to handle wide swings in model mix. Though for now it will concentrate on Ford's two-for-one special.