Ford Debuts a Lighter Expedition in First Makeover Since 2003

  • Large SUV gets aluminum body in first redesign in 14 years
  • Ford targets GM’s commanding lead with large, luxe SUVs

The new Ford Expedition.

Source: Ford Motor Co.

In the battle of behemoth sport utility vehicles, Ford Motor Co. is losing badly to General Motors Co. The once-leader in the lucrative category will now attempt a comeback by redesigning its Expedition SUV for the first time since George W. Bush’s inaugural term as president.

The wider, longer and lighter Expedition debuting Tuesday in Dallas packs features that would’ve been unimaginable when Ford last updated the model in 2003. A safety system steers the SUV back into driving lanes and helps navigate stop-and-go traffic with minimal human input. It’ll beam Wi-Fi as far as 50 feet, boast USB ports in all three rows and offer wireless mobile-phone charging.

Similar features can be found in the Chevrolet Tahoe, Cadillac Escalade or GMC Yukon, among the GM models controlling about three quarters of the U.S. market for large and luxury SUVs. Ford was a pioneer with the original Expedition and Lincoln Navigator in the mid-1990s, then stopped updating them as gas prices soared, to invest in small cars, fuel-efficient engines and aluminum-bodied trucks. As pump prices eased, GM earned a $2 billion profit advantage over its crosstown rival with its fresher SUVs, according to Morgan Stanley estimates.

“The profit pool is enormous for these large, body-on-frame SUVs,” Bob Shanks, Ford’s chief financial officer, said in an interview. “Right now, General Motors gets a disproportionate share of that.”

Makeover Time

Ford is making over both the Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator, with both slated to begin sales in the fall. The Navigator is expected to be unveiled in April at the New York International Auto Show and borrow cues from an exotic concept shown last year with giant gull-winged doors. Those wings will be clipped, but Ford will wrap both the Navigator and Expedition in lighter-weight aluminum bodies, following after the Ford F-150 pickup from which the SUVs are derived.

Prices for the redesigned models have not been released. The current Expedition starts at $47,125, while the Navigator has a base price of $63,515. Ford has been offering substantial discounts on the aging models.

More competitors are aiming for a piece of the high-end SUV market, with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV revealing the Dodge Durango SRT at this week’s Chicago Auto Show. The automaker also is working on a return for the Jeep Grand Wagoneer large SUV after 2020.

For the Expedition, using aluminum will trim as much as 300 pounds from the outgoing model, making the new version more fuel efficient and nimble, said Todd Hoevener, the chief engineer. Ford will offer features that’ll add some weight back, including an optional glass roof or an entertainment system with screens embedded into the backs of the front seats.

Creature Comforts

With U.S. gasoline prices averaging less than $2.30 a gallon, pinching pennies at the pump isn’t the priority it was a decade ago. Instead, the fully grown families Ford is targeting with the eight-seat Expedition are interested in creature comforts and towing capability, said Craig Patterson, the automaker’s large vehicle marketing manager.

“We’ll see just how loyal those customers are who’ve been in Tahoes and Suburbans,” Patterson said. “We need to attract those customers back and it’s our job to tell them how we’ve built a better mousetrap.”

The mousetrap Ford built happens to be massive. The Expedition comes in two jumbo sizes, the regular three-row version and an extended-length “Max” edition. It’s outfitted with 17 cup holders and twice the cubby space of its predecessor, including a cavernous storage compartment in the center console.

“If you open that center console and talk into it, you’ll hear an echo,” said Ehab Kaoud, the chief interior designer.

Maintaining Ranks

GM believes it can maintain its sizable lead over Ford, which controls about 13 percent of the large and luxury SUV market, according to Morgan Stanley.

“We have the highest owner loyalty in the segment and have been the sales and market share leader for decades because we have never stopped investing and innovating for our customers,” Jim Cain, a GM spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Ford’s “internal metrics” suggest it could regain the lead in large SUVs, said Patterson, the marketing manager. Workers will build the Expedition and Navigator at a plant in Louisville, Kentucky, that also assembles Super Duty pickups. If demand takes off for the big SUVs, pickup production can be moved to another plant in Ohio, Patterson said.

“We’ve got flexibility,” Patterson said. “We can make as many as we can sell.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE