Monday, 30 June 2014

Transit rolls in Claycomo; F-150 next

Ford Motor Company has begun production of the 2015 Transit van at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri.

Transit will replace the venerable Ford E-series van, first sold in 1961 as the Ford Econoline. Ford will continue making E-series vans during the 2014 calendar year as Transit production ramps up.

This is the first time Transit is being built and sold in North America. But North America’s gain was the UK’s loss.

Ford claims it has invested $1.1 billion and added 2,000 new jobs to the Kansas City Assembly Plant. Ford adds that it has reached 75 per cent of its target to create 12,000 hourly jobs in the U.S. by 2015 – part of a deal Ford struck with the UAW, the United Autoworkers Union.

Transit is powered by a standard 3.7-litre V-6 engine, and the same 3.5-litre EcoBoost engine used in the F-150 pickup and a 3.2-litre Power Stroke diesel engine. All engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission in a rear-wheel-drive configuration.

Is it conceivable that at a much later stage, some Transit vans will also carry the new 2.7-litre gasoline EcoBoost recently announced for the 2015 F-Series pick-up truck?

For, in addition to 2015 Transit, Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant (KCAP) produces regular, super and crew cab versions of the Ford F-150. The plant employs 4,878 hourly workers on three crews. The third crew was added in the third quarter of 2013.

Ford begins production of next-generation, largely all-aluminium F-150s in the first quarter of 2015.

“Our investment in Kansas City Assembly Plant for Transit production is about delivering world-class commercial vans for a new generation of commercial customers,” claims Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the Americas.

                                                  Ambitious effort

The Transit marks an ambitious effort by Ford to expand its commercial vehicle business with a versatile van that was developed in Europe in 1965. The Transit is now sold in 118 countries. However, in the UK, Ford killed production of Transit and transferred manufacture to Turkey.

In North America, Ford will offer Transit van and wagon in three body lengths, two wheelbases and three roof heights along with chassis cab and cutaway versions. The Transit will come in two trim levels: XL and XLT.

Meanwhile, it will be recalled that on 26 October 2012 Ford announced, as part of a larger cutback of its European production capacity, its Southampton plant would shutter in July 2013. And production of all new Transit vans for Europe moved to Ford Otosan in Kocaeli, Turkey. 

The last UK-built Transit entered production on 15 July 2013 and rolled off the production line on 26 July. Workers who did not accept redundancy or early retirement, were redeployed.

Meanwhile in the US, to add Transit production at KCAP and expand manufacture of the F-150, Ford added a 437,000-square-foot stamping facility and built a new paint shop. Almost 550 new robots were added in the body shop in addition to new tooling of the assembly line and 18 new conveyor systems.

The Kansas City Assembly Plant is two plants under one roof. The F-150 section gets a revamp in the New Year to make way for the all-new 2015 pickup. It will require a new body shop as the new truck will be made largely of aluminium in place of steel.

"These upgrades have helped make the Kansas City plant the global standard for Ford's new manufacturing facilities across the world," claims Bruce Hettle, Ford vice president, North America manufacturing. "To support Ford's global growth, in 2014 we will open three new manufacturing facilities — two of them in Asia Pacific and one in South America."

According to Ford, new Transit offers 487 cubic feet of cargo space and has a maximum payload capacity of 4,650lb. Ford claims Transit van delivers a maximum towing capacity of 7,600lb.

In some configurations, according to Ford, Transit offers 75 per cent more cargo space than the largest version of the outgoing E series. Not surprisingly, Ford has been working with fleet customers to prepare them for the switch from ‘old style’ Econoline to the Euro-styled Transit.

The high-roof version of the Transit – with 81.5in of maximum interior cargo height – has headroom for a 6ft, 8in tall individual to stand upright.

The Transit gives Ford a modern commercial van to compete against the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in North America.
                                        Sprinting ahead

In the US, Sprinter vans are made by Daimler Vans Manufacturing, LLC., the company’s van plant. The plant in Ladson, near Charleston, South Carolina (USA), assembles Sprinters for the US market under the Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner brands.

Sprinter is available on the US market as a panel van, crew bus and chassis in several variants with three lengths and roof heights. Sprinter has been assembled and sold in the USA since 2001.

In March of this year, Mercedes-Benz let slip it was seriously considering offering a compact van in the rapidly expanding US compact van segment, now estimated at 30,000 units sold in the U.S. annually.

Claus Tritt, general manager of operations of the Commercial Vans division of Mercedes-Benz USA, said expanding product choices have reshaped the company's approach to commercial vans.

"In the large-van segment, we're playing with a new deck of cards," said Tritt. "The most dramatic change I see is in the small-van segment. This segment is going to be the new battleground of the industry."

Mercedes-Benz's global van sales have seen a sharp demand surge in the past five years, according to Tritt. The automaker sold 270,100 vans globally in 2013, a 63 per cent increase from the 165,576 vans sold in 2009. Sales figures include the Sprinter full-size van as well as the Vito, Viano, and Vario model lines available in Europe.

Sprinter vans sold in the US now account for an 8.4 per cent share of the full-size van market, which reached 258,823 units in 2013. Sprinter sales in 2010 represented 4.4 percent of full-size van sales.

Mercedes-Benz now offers five Sprinter models including the crew van, passenger van, cargo van, cab chassis, and MiniBus. Daimler AG offers a Freightliner-branded version with slightly different body styling to mostly government fleet buyers.

"We see a trend in the US in the light commercial environment toward highly fuel- efficient vehicles," Tritt claimed. "We would be seriously foolish if we didn't look at our entire line-up and find ways to enhance our offerings."

In November, the German automaker confirmed it is considering adding Vito into the US market, while the Citan van, introduced in Europe for the 2012 model year, could offer an ideal compact van for US customers. In 2015, Mercedes-Benz will add a 4x4 Sprinter van.

According to Antje Williams, department manager of Sprinter brand management, the new 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel engine offered with the 2014 Sprinter has been “gaining traction”. The engine offers an 18 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the 3-litre V6 diesel Sprinter engine.

"Adoption of the four-cylinder engine is going quite a bit quicker than we expected," Williams said.

Back in the UK, Ford’s Transit sales are being hard pressed by Mercedes-Benz. On 11 June, Mercedes-Benz announced that the first five months’ sales of 2014 went down as a record for Mercedes-Benz Vans in the UK, culminating in the best-ever sales for the month of May.

The figures positioned the UK market at the number one spot in Europe and number two worldwide for Mercedes-Benz Vans global sales.

There were over 2,800 vehicles registered in May, up 29% versus the same period in 2013, with both Citan and Vito sales at their second highest levels for the year, and Sprinter Chassis Cab increasing more than three-fold on May 2013 sales figures.

Steve Bridge, managing director of Mercedes-Benz Vans UK, eagerly awaits official confirmation of sales for the first six months of 2014.

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