A brand new Ford Escape is displayed on the sales lot at Serramonte Ford on December 3, 2012 in Colma, California. Ford is recalling nearly 89,000 2013 Ford Escape SUVs and 2013 Ford Fusion cars equipped with 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines due to a fire risk when the engine overheats and fluids come in contact with the hot engine surfaces. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
As embarrassments go, Ford Motor couldn't face a worse recall than one that wraps together two critical 2013 vehicles and a technology that it has spent the most time and money trying to burnish: Fusion sedan, Escape crossover and the EcoBoost turbocharged engine.
Yet on Monday Ford was at a loss to explain why the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine in two big-selling models was overheating and might catch fire - or how it plans to fix the 89,153 vehicles involved. Ford is urging owners to park their vehicles, contact their dealers and arrange for loaners.
So far, 12 fires were reported in the Escapes and one in the Fusion, which just went on sale, says Ford spokesman Said Deep. No injuries were reported.
What's more, the latest recall marks the fourth for the Escape since last spring. One involved a swatch of carpet that could block the gas pedal. The others all involved the same 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine, including a recent recall because of coolant leaking from a freeze plug.
That track record now has some asking whether the automaker, which has tried hard to burnish the reputation of the Ford nameplate under CEO Alan Mulally, has gone astray.
"It does beg the question: 'Does Ford have a serious quality problem?' " says George Cook, executive professor of marketing at the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester and a former Ford marketing executive.
Consumer Reports recently dropped Ford to second-to-last place in its annual reliability survey. Only two years ago, Ford was in the top 10. Ford has created so many all-new products that the kinks haven't been worked out of many of them, lsays Jake Fisher, head of the non-profit magazine's automotive test division.
The Ford brand has had 92 recalls since 2009, substantially higher than the next highest brands - Chevrolet, at 70, and Toyota, at 68, a search of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database reveals. Of course, such a search doesn't take into account the severity of individual recalls or that the Ford nameplate is part of the larger Ford Motor. When recalls in its various divisions are added up, General Motors outpaces Ford on recalls overall.
It hurts even more that the problems involve 73,320 Escapes and 15,833 Fusions. In launching the new Escape this year, Ford said the two models compete in segments that make up 30% of all sales.
With fuel economy a top consideration, Ford has heavily touted its EcoBoost engines - and is bringing them to 90% of its models. Though the recall is "just isolated to that engine," the 1.6-liter, Ford fears the recall "might tarnish the entire line of engines," says Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain for LMC Automotive.
Some buyers sound deeply unhappy.
One buyer complained to NHTSA that he had already gone through three recall repairs on his 2013 Escape and was driving on the freeway near Charlottesville, Va., when a pop came from the engine. The engine temperature light came on, steam, then oily smoke poured from the engine and it burst into flames.
Another owner, Andrew Portare, says his engine hasn't overheated but his Escape has already been back to the dealer for several other problems. Now the Chantilly, Va., executive is miffed that Ford is telling him to park his Escape and use a free rental car.
"I just paid $26,000 for this car. Now they tell me to park it," he says.
Portare says he's fed up. "I feel like I should be able to get a refund," he says.