What makes a Ford a Ford? The question is simple, and a 105-year-old company should know how it wants its cars to look, feel, and drive: the resistance in the steering wheel, the spring in the seats, the rumble from the exhaust. But Ford is still struggling to find an answer. So on a blustery spring morning, CEO Alan Mulally and 25 top executives from the United States and Europe meet at a test track near company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., to tease that question out, one component at a time.
As the executives cluster around a whiteboard, Mulally, dressed in a blue Ford windbreaker, sounds off on the first topic: the new transmissions for the lineup. These offer consumers the option of shifting themselves or letting the car do it automatically. The question is, Should Ford offer drivers buttons on the steering wheel or racing-style paddles behind the steering-wheel spokes? It is a small detail - each component costs about $25 - yet it produces spirited discussion.
Mulally wants to know how the gear changes will be signaled to the driver. Mark Fields, who runs Ford's car business in the Americas, worries about durability and warranty costs. More fundamentally, he questions whether drivers even want to shift gears themselves. "I'm concerned we're going in the wrong direction," he says. Jim Farley, newly recruited from Toyota (TM) to oversee global sales and marketing, is thinking about how the action will feel: "If the paddle shifter is well done, it could be a big advantage for us." After 30 minutes, the paddle shifters seem to be winning. But before the issue is resolved, the group moves on to the next topic: the electronic chimes that remind drivers to turn off the headlights or remove the ignition key.
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