PUTC Interview with Chris Brewer, Ford Explorer Sport Trac Chief Engineer
Chris Brewer is the chief engineer for Explorer and Explorer Sport Trac programs. He sat down with Mike Magda to discuss the challenges and strategies associated with designing the two vehicles side-by-side:
PickupTruck.com: Speaking strictly from an engineer’s view, were there any compromises made on the new Sport Trac that concerned your group?
Chris Brewer: No. We had the flexibility to do all the things we thought we needed to do. We wouldn’t have a Sport Trac if we didn’t have the 4-door Explorer, and it gave us the platform we needed to do what we feel is a really fabulous Sport Trac.
PUTC: Ford skipped a generation of the Explorer when offering the Sport Trac, so the differences between the old and new Sport Trac are dramatic. How did that thought play into any engineering or marketing plans?
Brewer: It’s so much easier to demonstrate why the new Sport Trac is clearly head and shoulders better than the old Sport Trac. A large part of our future customers will be people who bought the prior Sport Trac. And we think these prior customers will say this is everything I expected it to be and more. It’s really a no-compromise product compared to the previous generation and what the new generation needs to be.
PUTC: Given the bad publicity from the previous generation, was that an underlying motivation in giving this vehicle just about every feature available?
Brewer: I wouldn’t say it’s a major motivating factor but you always want to provide a better product to your customer. The 4-door Explorer has also gotten publicity in terms of how safe is it. Quite frankly, we think it’s one of the safest products we’ve ever built and the 2006 Explorer is even safer than the prior model. The new Sport Trac is based off the 4-door Explorer. We deliberately rolled across the all the goodness of the 4-door Explorer in terms of safety technology to ensure next generation Sport Trac customer got everything we had to offer.
PUTC: Ford has been very aggressive on reducing noise in all trucks. But that improvement sometimes comes with a weight penalty. How did you balance weight with the demands of better fuel economy?
Brewer: Fuel economy is a tough element to address. We’ve got comparable fuel economy to the prior Sport Trac, but the vehicle is heavier because we have a dramatically stiffer frame. That gives a lot of the goodness we’ve been talking about. It enables us to make the vehicle quieter yet handle better and meet crash requirements. Let me put it in perspective. Weight matters in terms of fuel economy and a lot of other things as well. As we get smarter about milking a little more out of the engine, more out of the transmission, we then have an opportunity to spend a little bit of weight on things that customers find value in. The beauty of reducing noise is that every person in the vehicle appreciates it, not just the driver.
PUTC: The first Sport Trac was pretty much entry level and affordable ($21,910 MSRP for 4x2 in 2001, including destination). The new Sport Trac has so many features that are standard. Was there any consideration of a bare-bones model to get the price point down?
Brewer: The good news is the starting price for the 2007 Sport Trac is the 2005 Sport Trac: $24,940 (including destination). Yet, you’re right. We are offering a lot more feature content, including IRS, side air bags, roll-stability control. If we were to price those, represent several hundred dollars worth of content. So we think we have a great value story. So we don’t think we have the need to decontent the vehicle to make it more affordable.
PUTC: Sport Trac has a high percentage of female buyers. How did that figure into your engineering plans?
Brewer: We love all our buyers. When the 2001 Sport Trac came out, it was one of the better riding, quieter, more stylish looking vehicles in the compact pickup market. There weren’t a lot of compact 4-door pickups at that point. There are a lot more now so you have to be that much better to stand out from the crowd. From an appearance prospective, we’ve built on the strengths of the prior product and done even better. Because the vehicle looks good, is comfortable to drive and isn’t too large, that appeals to a lot of women.
PUTC: But when you were setting up the original parameters for suspension tuning, was there a consideration to lean towards a Lincoln-Mercury spec instead of a Ford spec to appeal more to women?
Brewer: We don’t have a bias in terms of Lincoln-Mercury wants this or Ford wants that. We do for Lincoln products but this is clearly a Ford product. It’s possible a Mercury branded product would want to be turned different but we don’t see that happening with Sport Trac right now.
PUTC: With the increased popularity of compact crew cab pickups, was there a consideration of building a unibody Sport Trac to be special and different?
Brewer: We didn’t entertain it and the reason why is that the versatility of body-on-frame construction gives you true truck attributes that you can’t get with unibody. You can’t tow the same weight and can’t get the same rugged durability. You can’t put a full load in it, beat the heck out of it and still provide the level of refinement. Body on frame has got an inherent advantage over unibody in that you have an extra level of isolation between the body and chassis. The last part is, to do a unibody and do a pickup is a tough challenge. You have to join the box, which wants to be independent. You need to put some significant buttressing behind the rear door and the box. It can be done but you end up with some appearance compromises that we weren’t willing to make. The product we’re coming out with is very visually appealing yet can function as a personal use truck.
PUTC: Now that SVT has shelved plans for the Andrenalin Sport Trac, does that open up opportunities for you to offer special editions as a mid-cycle enhancement?
Brewer: We’re never going to rule anything out. We are looking hard at some of the key bits of hardware that SVT was looking at and we may do something with that in the future. We’re not supposed to talk about future product, so we’re looking at what they were doing because they’re pretty smart guys.
PUTC: But one could say there’s a need now for someone to step up and so something special with the Sport Trac.
Brewer: And I agree it’s something we do look hard at. The good news is we have a V8 engine for the first time. It’s not quite as juiced up as an SVT version would be, but I want to say a V8 will stave off the mid-life crisis for a little bit longer than otherwise. The SVT guys certainly have a lot of good ideas and if there’s something we can take advantage of we’ll look at it.