DETROIT — Stepping up its campaign to be seen as a safe and environmentally sensitive truck builder, Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday it has developed a "mildly hybrid" propulsion system for its Explorer sport-utility and a suite of safety features that will be available on its entire SUV line by 2004.
The Explorer, Ford's bestselling SUV, gets the safety package with the new 2002 model that will hit showrooms by early spring. Other Ford SUVs, from the compact Escape to the gigantic Excursion, will receive the features as new models are rolled out over the next few years, said Gurminder Bedi, vice president of Ford Truck.
The hybrid power system for the Explorer uses a 42-volt battery to power an integrated starter-generator, or ISG, system that allows the standard V-6 engine to shut off when the vehicle is stopped, yet restart within milliseconds when pressure is applied to the accelerator.
Shutting down the gasoline engine when the vehicle is idling at stop signs or in traffic jams greatly reduces fuel consumption and can help reduce emissions, which are heaviest at idle in most vehicles.
The system also enables the vehicle to accelerate with the help of energy stored in the electric motor when the brakes are applied.
A fully hybrid Escape, with its electric motor-assisted gasoline engine, will be offered for sale in 2003. Ford's new alternative-power system for the Explorer will hit the market "sometime after" that, Bedi said
The system will boost the Explorer's gas mileage from an average of 20 miles per gallon to 27 mpg, Bedi said.
The initiatives are part of Ford's "Cleaner, Safer, Sooner" program launched in 1999 and follow months of scrutiny of the Explorer after scores of fatal accidents in recent years involving the popular SUV and Firestone tires.
In August, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. recalled 6.5 million tires, most of them sold on Explorers, that showed a tendency to lose their treads at high speeds. Safety groups say the defects lie with the Explorer as well as the tires, and that the SUV lacks stability and rolls over more easily when the tires fail.
Ford's decision to incorporate the safety features is unrelated to the Firestone crisis, Bedi said.
"Certainly there's heightened focus on safety, and we applaud that," Bedi told reporters at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The SUV safety suite includes an optional tire-pressure sensor and warning system; a lowered front bumper beam to reduce damage to passenger cars in collisions with the SUV; standard anti-lock brakes with brake power distribution controls to shorten stopping distances; and a side-impact air-bag curtain system.
Later this year, Ford will add as options on the Explorer an electronic stability, or skid-control, system and a rollover sensor that deploys rollover curtain air bags that stay inflated longer than standard bags to provide increased safety.
SUVs sold by Ford's Irvine-based Lincoln and Mercury brands will get the same features in the same time frame, Bedi said.
Separately, General Motors Corp. confirmed reports Tuesday that it will develop a new platform that can handle conventional engines and hybrid-power systems that will make it possible for GM to offer hybrid gas-electric power plants across the entire spectrum of vehicles, from small cars to large trucks and SUVs.
The company also showed off a heavy-duty hybrid system, developed by its Allison Transmission division, that can be used to power large commercial trucks and buses. A prototype has been in use in Southern California since mid-December by the Orange County Transportation Authority.