Enthusiasts rejoice, the Ford Bronco is coming back! And the Ranger!
Probably . . .
The tentative labor agreement between Ford Motor Company and the UAW shows the outgoing Focus and C-Max at the 2.8 million square foot, Michigan Assembly Plant will be replaced with a new Ranger. And there is strong evidence in the agreement that suggests a new Bronco will join Ford’s mid-size pickup there. A cornerstone of the pending UAW agreement, much like the FCA-UAW agreement, is Ford’s commitment to investing in domestic production and American jobs.
In July of this year, Ford announced that Focus and C-Max would decamp Michigan Assembly in 2018 for Mexico. This move is part of a long-term trend that has seen a steady shift in production from the United States and Canada to Mexico. According to WardsAuto, which tracks production data, 10 percent of vehicles made in North America in 2004 were produced in Mexico. Last year, Mexico’s share of North American production reached 20 percent, and based on confirmed OEM plans, will hit 25 percent by 2020.
But there is good news for American auto manufacturing jobs and Bronco fans alike. Domestic auto manufacturing employment expanded 15 percent between 2008 and 2014, and those gains appear to be protected by robust consumer demand in conjunction with the current round of labor agreements. Not only that, but the products being made in American factories will be highly profitable, high-volume trucks and SUVs, while less profitable cars transition to Mexico.
Ranger and Bronco enthusiasts will be the beneficiaries of these trends. Were it not for its need to satiate the UAW and keep its 4,100 workers in Wayne busy, Ford may not have a stand-alone business case for the reintroduction of the Bronco. I even make the case the new Bronco (and you might not believe it) should return as something else entirely.
Still, the case for the Ranger is however strong and it will be the volume leader between the two products. The surging GM Colorado/Canyon twins are on pace to move 124,000 units in the Unites States and Canada this year – their first full-year back on the market.
What’s more, even in the face of renewed competition in the segment, sales of the class leading Toyota Tacoma are trending up. Moreover, GM has established with the Colorado/Canyon that mid-size trucks will not necessarily cannibalize full-size sales, as the Silverado/Sierra are together tracking for a 10 percent sales increase this year.
There is room for the Ranger in the mid-size pickup market, but can Ford fill Michigan Assembly with them? Probably not. Thus the Bronco, which should be able to soak up enough demand in this SUV crazed market to keep Wayne humming. However, in spite of rumors that the new Bronco may adopt a full-size form, this is not going to happen due to cost and market conditions.
First, the capital requirements associated with producing an F-150 derived Bronco in the same facility as the Ranger would be immense. A separate production line and drive-trains would be required. Ford needs to design a Bronco that can share a platform and running-gear with the Ranger and ideally be manufactured on the same production lines. Second, the market opportunity for full-size SUVs is poor. In spite of incredible auto sales in 2015 and the market-wide transition to SUVs and CUVs, full-size SUV sales will be down seven percent this year. Even sales of the redesigned segment dominating GM Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon are off. The full-size segment is contracting and with FCA contemplating the introduction of a Ram 1500 based SUV, the prospects for a Bronco entry into the full-size market are even riskier.
The current market would relegate a full-size Bronco to a very expensive niche product, which is not what Ford is looking for.
A new Bronco will need to differentiate itself from Ford’s packed SUV/CUV offering or risk confusing consumers and jeopardizing Ford’s other products. This means Ford will be working diligently to design a Bronco that appeals to a different audience than those shopping for an Escape, Edge, Explorer, and Expedition. Some pundits have suggested the Bronco could be based on the international Ranger T6 derived Everest. This would provide a body-on-frame, off-road capable product with an existing investment in design and engineering. However, an Everest would be difficult to differentiate from Explorer and would face off against a full field of similar competitors, including the Grand Cherokee, 4Runner, and pending Discovery.
Fortunately for enthusiasts, the clearest path for Ford to new customers is in emulating the highly successful Wrangler. One of the Wrangler’s greatest charms for Ford is that Jeep will sell 230,000 units in North America this year without a single direct competitor. A Wrangler fighting Bronco would also appeal to the Bronco heritage most consumers associate with it: a cost competitive, nimble, off-road capable, body-on-frame SUV. We can expect Ford to offer the Bronco with a fully or partially removable top, though the engineering effort required to modify the Ranger platform to comply with federal roll-over standards should not be underestimated.
That said, without a removable top, the Bronco would lose its Wrangler fighting edge and begin to resemble the defunct Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra, a mistake Ford is no doubt keen to avoid with the iconic Bronco nameplate. We can, however, be confident the Bronco will come in two and four-door models, as the take rate on Wrangler four-door models is 70 percent. This all adds up to a compelling Bronco, more consistent with its original 1996-1977 iteration than with its full-size 1978-1996 version.
There is a lot to be excited about, though the wait may feel like an eternity. Ford does not plan to reintroduce the Ranger until 2018 and the Bronco will likely follow a model year or more later. In the meantime, Ford can rename the Michigan Assembly Plant, where Broncos were produced from 1966 to 1996, with its rightful historic moniker, the Michigan Truck Plant.
*Seth Parks is an auto industry veteran, entrepreneur, and Automoblog.net contributor.
Follow him on Twitter: @mseth_parks