Following up on hints offered earlier in the month, Ford Motor Co. officials have announced they’ll be adding 1,200 new jobs at an assembly plant on the outskirts of Chicago.
Already building the latest version of the Taurus sedan, Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant will also begin producing the maker’s next-generation Explorer sport-utility vehicle, a move that will require a $400 million investment. About half that money will go into the assembly plant and a nearby stamping facility. The rest will go towards engineering and launch-related costs.
Long the most popular SUV on the U.S. market, with sales peaking at 445,000 annually, Ford has seen the Explorer slip sharply, in recent years, however. The brand was clearly hurt by a problem with tire failures, early in the last decade, but it was also hammered by increased competition, poor gas mileage, harsh ride, questionable quality and a steady shift in consumer tastes away from conventional truck-based utes to car-based crossovers. In 2009, Explorer sales slipped 35%, from year-earlier levels, to just 52,190.
The “all-new” version of the SUV, which appears to be a repackaging of the Freestyle and then the Taurus X built in Chicago until last year, will go into production late this year. Explorer will follow, rather than lead, in at least one key area. The 2011 Ford Explorer will abandon its body-on-frame design and adopt a crossover design, sharing the same platform used for the latest version of Taurus.
(Ford isn’t the only automaker to make such a dramatic shift. The original Mercedes-Benz M-Class was truck-based, but the latest version is a car-derived crossover.)