The new boss of Ford Australia, Andrew Birkic, has been in the top job for a little more than a month, but he has been with the Blue Oval brand for more than 26 years.
We asked the former global brand manager for Ford Ranger about plans for a V6 Ford Ranger Raptor, the chances of the Ford Explorer, F-150 and Bronco nameplates ever returning to Australian showrooms – and if Ford will stay in V8 Supercars once Holden is gone.
Below is an edited transcript of CarAdvice’s Q and A session.
As you will read, car company executives are well practised at not giving much away when it comes to future model plans. We just hope Ford is staying tight-lipped because it is secretly planning some cars on our wish list.
CarAdvice: How are you enjoying the new job so far?
AB: It's been a wonderful experience. I joined Ford 26-and-a-half years ago and I never would have thought I'd be in this situation to be honest. So, it's a privilege and an honour, and it's something I take pretty seriously. And I've really enjoyed my time at Ford. I really do think the company is an amazing company and we've got wonderful roots in history and that's what I do like about them a lot, the fact they've got that family element.
I love the fact that we're in manufacturing globally, that we produce something and … there’s something about the way (the company) responded to COVID (by producing masks and other medical aids in the US).
CarAdvice: Ford has had a lot of global bosses in the past decade. Where were you during the transformative Alan Mulally era?
AB: I was in China and in Australia. In terms of someone who came from a non-automotive background … he made such an incredible impact. It was a really difficult era (during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and 2009) (but) there was no arrogance, there was no complacency. I think he was a tremendous asset to the company.
CarAdvice: It took a while for global management at Ford to have the courage to tell Alan Mulally when a particular program or project wasn’t going as well as planned.
AB: Sometimes you need those brave moments, right?
CarAdvice: What has it been like switching from being in charge of the Ford Ranger globally to now running Ford Australia?
AB: First of all, I love the business. When … I see people driving a Ranger I look at them and I try and work out what do they do. And if they're driving a Hilux, (I ask) why? I love that side of the business. Certainly the Ranger job was very different, in the sense that it was global. And it was more ‘big picture’. It wasn't about getting into the nuts and the bolts on every single (detail).
We've got over 2000 engineers and designers to do that, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to have a global role and (went to) a Brazilian farm (to see) how they use their truck (versus how the vehicle is used) in Vietnam. (Being the boss of Ford Australia) is a much broader role (but) it’s a great opportunity to leverage my history with Ford and some of the roles I've had.
Above: the next Ranger, in speculative form – but based on leaked images of early design studies
CarAdvice: When the current generation Ford Ranger arrived in 2011 it was a step change from the previous pick-up that had been around for 17 years. Will the next Ford Ranger make the same step change or will it be an evolution?
AB: I can't go into specifics, but what I can share with you … is the mindset and the approach. We've got a pretty strong legacy and a very good core base to build on. We (sell the Ranger) in over 180 markets and we do incredibly well in some of those markets. So, I think generally, the nature of our approach is one of recognising where we've come from and not being complacent at all.
There are not too many meetings that I've sat in (where someone has said) ‘this is good enough’. We have to push ourselves and to be honest, that is the company mindset. It's about, how do you keep getting better. And I think the competitors have raised the bar. There's certainly some really good (rival utes) out there. So the market doesn't allow you to be complacent and the customer is so well educated now.
CarAdvice: The Ford Ranger has been the second-best seller to the Toyota HiLux for the past three years as a nameplate, although in the double cab 4x4 category the Ford Ranger gave the Toyota HiLux a black eye on eight individual months last year. Will the Ford Ranger ever be Number One as a nameplate, or are you happy in the current position?
AB: You know … we’re pretty proud of (the 4x4 sales victory). That, to me, is a great achievement by the team. I think our approach is, we need to keep investing in (special models). I think what we've done a really good job at, is connecting with owners and the public on an emotional sense, and we think we are quite a desirable vehicle. We're investing a lot there.
CarAdvice: May we offer some product planning advice? Is there room for a Ford Ranger XLT Touring model, with plush suspension as per today, and a Ford Ranger XLT HD with a heavy duty rear end, for people who tow, or for tradies who put heavy tool boxes on the back? Using a similar approach, is there room for a Ford Ranger Raptor RS – as it is today, with 2500kg towing capacity and Fox shocks – and a Ford Ranger Raptor HD, with heavy duty suspension that can tow 3500kg?
AB: Full disclosure, I'm not an engineer (but ideas like that) are what I'm trying to bring to the table. We've got a lot of engineers, but … product marketing is the voice of the customer. Our job is to discern the wants and the needs (of customers).
When you talk about (towing) capacity and suspension and ride, we've just launched a (Ranger XL) with heavy duty-suspension. (But) there's always tension (about ride comfort) because some people want it to be (plush versus heavy duty).
CarAdvice: Is there room for a Ford Ranger Raptor with more road-focussed tyres, because those BFGoodrich tyres are superb in the dry – on tarmac and off-road – but they’re dicey on wet sealed roads. Is there any scope to develop a highway tyre of the same profile?
AB: I still think the (Ford Ranger Raptor) handles pretty well. Whether you're on-road or off-road. The (package) that we have right now means that there are trade-offs. That is the nature of the business and they have to make those assessments based on what we think customers want, but also deliver on the full performance DNA.
We're always open to suggestions and looking at it (but) we think the formula is pretty good.
CarAdvice: Let’s tick off a few questions that are probably going to lead to short answers, but you're welcome to make them long answers. Can you tell us if a Ford Ranger Raptor V8 was a chance for production?
AB: Thank you for the question. Nothing to share.
CarAdvice: Will there be a Ford Ranger Raptor V6 and how do you wrestle with the decision to make it a petrol or a diesel? Will the US get a petrol and Australia get a diesel? Or will one of those countries get an engine that doesn’t ideally suit their market, given that Australia prefers diesel and the US prefers petrol?
AB: As with the last question, I’ve really got nothing to share on different powertrains. I know there was some conjecture, but I can't speak to it.
CarAdvice: By our assessment the Ford Endura five-seat SUV hasn't been the runaway sales success you might have been hoping for. Australians have not adopted the Endura as a replacement for the Ford Territory seven-seat SUV. We are mindful of the difficulty in making a business case for certain right-hand-drive models, however given there is speculation about a completely new global Ford platform, does that pave the way for the eventual return of Explorer in Australia? Would you like to see the Ford Explorer return to Australia in some form at some time in the future?
AB: Again, I have really nothing to share on that. We look at the Ford portfolio and … we have a pretty robust product-planning process … where we look at our opportunities around the globe. Ultimately, we need to make business decisions. But in terms of future products, I’m not in really a position to share that with you. I'm sorry.
CarAdvice: We appreciate you cannot disclose whether or not there is a plan for the Ford Explorer in Australia. But would you like to see a Ford Explorer in Australia? Do you think a Ford Explorer would sell in Australia?
AB: I'd like to see Ford having a winning line-up … of products where consumer trends are going, that keeps us edgy.
CarAdvice: Would a Ford Explorer sell well in Australia if it was here?
AB: I don't really want to get into hypotheticals.
CarAdvice: Ram and Chevrolet are selling full-size US pick-ups in Australia with unprecedented demand. Is Ford looking at that and considering joining them with a factory-built right-hand-drive or a converted F-Series? I know you can’t reveal any plans, but if you had a magic wand, would you like to reintroduce the F-Series here, do you think it would sell?
AB: You answered your own question. You were right. I can't talk about it.
CarAdvice: Okay, but would you like to find a way to sell F-Series here through Ford showrooms?
AB: I can't talk about that. So I can't share (anything) with you on that.
CarAdvice: Holden is going to be out of Australia and out of V8 Supercars very shortly, will Ford continue if the category turns into a one-make series?
AB: We are committed to motor sport (but) I can't talk about the V8 Supercars. We will work … with that body when they make those decisions and when they come to us.
What I can tell you is it that we have invested in motor sport globally. Ford Performance is a brand that does that. We're thrilled with the performance. All the Ford teams do an amazing job. And we're really happy that Scott McLaughlin is leading the series.
CarAdvice: But if there were no other competitor in V8 Supercars and it turned into a one-make series, would Ford continue?
Ford spokesperson answers: Ultimately we want to win in a competitive series. So we want to be in a competitive series. There's speculation about what (V8) Supercars is doing in the future, but we want to win against strong competitors.
CarAdvice: If V8 Supercars was a one-make series, would Ford therefore reconsider staying in the category if there were no other car brands to compete against?
Ford spokesperson answers: We don't think it will be a one-make series.
CarAdvice: The Ford Mustang has been a success in showrooms across Australia. It’s our understanding the original forecast for Australia was 1000 sales a year, but you did almost 10,000 in one year when catching up on back-orders. However, sales have since slowed dramatically. Has Ford considered doing more special editions like Mazda does with MX-5 and Porsche does with 911 to keep them fresh, and selling them throughout the model cycle?
AB: I think we're pretty happy with the way that Mustang is going. I mean, we're really proud of the (limited edition, supercharged) R Spec. If you look at the success of that product, it's a market leader. Customers love it. The dealers love it. I think there's a lot of good news around it. We're happy with the (Mustang) line-up.
CarAdvice: Given that the Ford Bronco in the US shares its DNA with the locally-developed Ford Ranger ute, is there any chance Bronco may come to Australia, at a mid-life update or similar?
AB: I've got nothing to share on it other than saying that the Bronco has been an amazing launch. As a long-term Ford employee, I'm really excited by what we saw.
I think it's a great example of the design process and Ford having a laser focus on the customer in the US. It is left-hand-drive only. So, nothing to share on that, other than we're thrilled with the way it's gone (in the US). They've done an amazing job.
CarAdvice: Do you think there would be market appeal for the Ford Bronco in Australia?
AB: I've got nothing to share on that.
CarAdvice: You're a 26-year veteran of the company and the car industry – and have spent a large part of that monitoring customer preferences – so presumably you would have some insight into whether you think the Bronco would have customer appeal in Australia. So, is Ford Australia contemplating asking for the Bronco? Or is it in the ‘too-hard’ basket?
AB: Well … yes … what we have coming on boats and on our docks is Rangers. And we've just launched a whole series of special editions … so I really suggest that's the focus. (In a separate interview with a group of media Mr Birkic said: "There is no plan to do a right-hand-drive Bronco," before correcting himself and saying, "there is no right-hand-drive Bronco").
CarAdvice: Isn't it dangerous, though, for Ford – or any company for that matter – to rely so heavily on one model? At the moment, the Ford Ranger is working for you. You're banking huge profits from it, and you're in the right position on the sales charts. But if for some reason your competitors in that segment get better and sell better, all of a sudden doesn't that make Ford Australia vulnerable? Don't you need more models in the line-up to be successful?
AB: I think Ranger is such a good product. We're thrilled with the sales numbers. I mean, that's a good start. What we also need to do is continue to invest in things like in our SUVs. So Puma (a city SUV), I think is going to be a great addition to our line up. I'm really excited about it ... I think it's got an edge which gives us an opportunity in the market to bring some new Ford customers. We think there's an opportunity to bring new customers to the brand. (Same with) the new Escape (five-seat family SUV).
CarAdvice: Based on customer surveys the car industry conducts, how does Ford rank on the ‘consideration to buy’ list when it comes to SUVs such as the Puma and Escape?
AB: Well, it's really multifaceted. It all starts with the right product and understanding your customer. It's won some awards in Europe … So, it starts with the product, but there's also a lot of non-product things you do around it in terms of your marketing. So I have reviewed the plan that the team has put together (and it is) very comprehensive, very impressive. I think the drive-away pricing that we announced is certainly competitive. And we're just looking forward to getting it (into showrooms).
CarAdvice: Another couple of quick questions. Kia recently forecast the entire industry’s new-car sales in Australia for 2020 will end up at 876,000. What is Ford’s forecast?
AB: Yeah I saw the article … (but) I'm not going to give you (a comment) other than we recognise that the industry has certainly come down this year. We get that, and that's due to some pretty significant external factors.
CarAdvice: So just to be clear, Ford Australia has a forecast for how it thinks the year will pan out but you’re not sharing it externally.
CarAdvice: Do you have any plans to increase five year warranty?
AB: We just launched five year warranty pretty recently. So, right now, that's what we've got.
CarAdvice: A couple of general questions to wrap up. What car did you get your licence in and what are some of the favourite cars you've owned?
AB: My dad had a Datsun 260C automatic … and he cleaned it with a toothbrush, so it was immaculate. So that was the car I learned to drive in.
CarAdvice: What about enthusiast cars over the years, once you got your licence?
AB: I like cars and I love a lot of cars. So I'm passionate about cars. If I think about the great cars that I've driven at Ford (they would include) the Falcon XR6 Turbo, I have very fond memories of driving along the Great Ocean Road in that car.
CarAdvice: Nice. What cars other than a Ford have you owned?
AB: I've had a white 1974 Lancia Beta Coupe. It was a few years ago now, one of my mates had a Fiat. So I thought I better get something too.
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