The rise, and fall, and second rise, and final death of the Ford D3

My son turns 10 years old today. Unlike most of the designs produced in Midwestern manufacturing cities during the previous decade, he arrived three months ahead of schedule and at a weight significantly below the original projections. We can’t be too proud of this, because the project budget went up significantly as a result of these changes. There was also some concern about out-of-warranty work as a result, but so far there’s been nothing that would warrant a lemon-law situation.

Like most children, my son expects his parents to have settled answers to his queries. “I have a question” is his most frequently-repeated statement. So far, I’ve usually had an answer. This will not always be the case. What I remember about being 10 is that I desperately wanted to be a grownup, because grownups had the answers. Grownups planned. They made thoughtful decisions, and they understood the consequences of those decisions. It was not until I reached my 40th birthday without magically achieving true adulthood that I realized how many of my childhood assumptions on this general subject were utterly groundless.

Take, if you will, the nice people at Ford. We’ve already determined that Ford, just like all the other major automakers, has no idea what it costs to build a car. Ah, but surely it has plans to build cars, correct? Surely there is someone at Ford who has looked 10 or 20 years into the future and absolutely mapped out what’s going to happen next. That has to be the case, because it would be ridiculous to run a zillion-dollar international manufacturing firm any other way.

2013 Lincoln MKS
2013 Lincoln MKS Lincoln

Ha, ha, and ha. Return with me, if you will, to 1996. After letting the first-generation Taurus flounder in the market for 10 years—two and a half generations of Camry!—the Blue Oval had introduced the DN101 Taurus through a process lovingly and critically documented in Mary Walton’s book, simply titled CAR. It was apparent from the first months that A Terrible Mistake Had Been Made, but nobody seemed terribly interested in fixing it in any sort of permanent fashion. Ford cut costs, installed a pair of wacky bespoke V-8 engines in the platform (one for the SHO and one for the Continental), and gave it perhaps the most depressing restyle since the Pontiac LeMans became the Bonneville Model G. But there was no real plan to make it better.

By 2003, the Taurus found itself doing battle against a third all-new Accord in an elegant and ironic reversal of World War II, where the Mitsubishi “Zero” air-superiority fighter started off by kicking the stuffing out of the sad old Brewster Buffalo and ended up being hunted down by bubble-cockpit Thuds and Mustangs and Corsairs. If the war had lasted any longer the Zero would have had to face the Lockheed Shooting Star jet. There’s a real penalty for not developing your core product, whether in war or peace.

The correct thing to do would have been to develop new FWD sedans at the same pace as the Japanese competition. As far as I know, that radical idea was never on the table. Instead, Ford chose to take the “P2” platform used by Volvo in the S80 sedan. It had acquired the rights to P2 in February of 1999 when it bought the Swedish automaker.

2010 Lincoln MKT
2010 Lincoln MKT Lincoln

Some mild cost cutting was done, mostly through the substitution of steel for aluminum, and voila! Ford had a platform for a new generation of sedans. The Ford Five Hundred joined the Mazda-derived Fusion on the front lines. The platform was called “D3.” Though it was brand-new to Ford, it had been developed at the same time as the 1998 Accord, which had disappeared from showrooms years ago. Styling was courtesy of J Mays, whose 1998 Passat had been so popular he decided to inflate it slightly to create the Five Hundred.

This strategy, of using styling and engineering from 1998 to face the car market of 2005, did not fare particularly well, as you might expect. Which is a shame, because the D3 cars were actually charming in their own way. The Freestyle wagon was a great alternative to an SUV. They were underpowered, and they had a finicky CVT, but both of those problems were rectified in 2008 with the six-speed, 3.5-liter version, renamed “Taurus and Taurus X.” It was too late for anyone to care. Honda had yet another Accord out by then.

The D3 platform spawned a D4 variant, which underpinned a pair of bizarre FWD wagons. It’s been my privilege to own both of them; I bought a Ford Flex Limited in 2009, and I now drive a 2018 Lincoln MKT Reserve Ecoboost. As functional devices for family living, they are hard to beat. You get 80 percent of a minivan’s utility in something that feels car-like to drive and operate. They actually handle pretty well, and in Ecoboost variants they are fast enough to dispatch the vast majority of competing traffic.

2017 Ford Explorer
2017 Ford Explorer Ford

Yet Ford chose to hobble both the Flex and MKT by styling them in, ahem, adventurous fashion. Neither model ever met sales projections, and they have been quickly forgotten by the market. Wikipedia thinks that customer sales of the MKT stopped in 2017, which will come as a surprise to anyone who buys one of the non-fleet 2019 models currently sitting on dealer lots. Most people now encounter these D4 platform vehicles via used-car lots or Uber Black. The GM Lambda cars (Acadia, Enclave, Traverse, and the dearly-departed Outlook) simply murdered them on the sales charts, simply by virtue of looking exactly like all the import crossovers from Lexus, Acura, and elsewhere.

So the entire D3/D4 platform was a massive failure, torpedoing Ford’s market share in both large sedans and large crossovers. Or was it? Because Ford had one more trick up its sleeve. In a turn of events which would shock my 10-year-old self but which will likely come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading up to this point, Ford was also absurdly short of plans to replace its Explorer SUV—and unlike the Taurus, the Explorer mattered to Ford’s bottom line. After two Ranger-derived models, a pair of bespoke RWD body-on-frame efforts which looked more or less identical to their predecessors, and a massive public-relations disaster courtesy of a tire-inflation directive, it appeared that pretty much everyone from Dearborn to Peoria was sick of Explorer business as usual.

The so-stupid-it’s-brillliant solution to this problem? Why, we’ll make a 2011 Explorer out of a 1998 Volvo S80! The D4-based crossover was worse in every respect than the Ford Flex on which it was based. I recall being horrified by it when I drove the first example. Somehow it had less space and less utility than the Flex while feeling significantly larger and more ungainly to drive. Even the odd-shaped footwells which turned-off a significant percentage of would-be Flex buyers were preserved intact. I predicted that it would destroy Ford’s SUV market share the same way the Five Hundred and its progeny had destroyed the firm’s sedan and wagon market share.

Shows what I know. The D4 Explorer was a massive success, both as a privately-owned vehicle and as a “Police Interceptor” variant. The biggest sales year for the vehicle was 2017—six years after the introduction of the car and 18 long years after the original engineering of the platform.

2016 Ford Flex
2016 Ford Flex Ford

What does this prove, exactly? That laziness pays off? Or is it a scathing verdict regarding the sometimes-odd directions taken by new-car engineering in the past decade, the same way that Ford’s “Panther” platform was saved from disaster in 1984 by GM’s decision to go FWD for large cars and then saved again 20 years later when GM decided to abandon the police and taxi market? On that subject, I will say this: I looked at all the MKT’s competitors before I bought mine, from the RX350 to the X5 to the Q7. The Lincoln was quieter, roomier, and simpler to operate. I’ve heard similar statements from people who are scrambling to buy their third and final Flex from CPO dealer inventory.

When the Ford D-platform was good, it was pretty good. When it was bad, as was the case with the early CVT Five Hundreds, it was inexcusable. And now it’s dead, because there is a handsome new Explorer and stunning new Aviator on the way, both developed from a fresh RWD platform. I’m cautiously optimistic, and if the vehicles succeed it will give me a lesson to teach my son, something like this: Grownups don’t always plan, and they don’t always make good decisions, but the best of them have the ability to learn, and profit from, their mistakes.

Abraham Lincoln once said that he didn’t think too much of anyone who was not wiser today than he was yesterday. Perhaps that’s what adulthood really means: the willingness to be wiser today than yesterday. I’ll have to work on that, even as my son works on it. Which reminds me of something that my relatively adult father once said to my mother. She told him “Grow up!” and he replied, “Race you!”

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