Run an internet search for “problems with Ford cars,” and the first result is a forum for Ford owners. Under the title, the text preview snippet says, and this is a direct quote: “There are 43,600 complaints on file for Ford.”
That seems about right. Probably no other car manufacturer in the world is as frustrating as the Ford Motor Company. That’s not the same as saying it makes terrible cars. If it did, that would be great! If FoMoCo had spent decades churning out uninspired garbage nobody liked, the superficial design flaws in their vehicles would be surpassed by the fundamental design flaws, and we wouldn’t care so much.
But that’s not Ford. Like we tell our kids when they get a spanking, we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t love you. Ford has made some great products over the years, which is like saying the Chicago Bears were a pretty good team when Mike Singletary was on their defensive line. Ford was making the street machines your grandfather used to pick up dames in the 40s, and the car you were conceived in was a ’68 Mustang. Decades of all-American success have made Ford part of the family for most of us, which is what makes these flaws so irritating to those who’ve been Ford families since Bonnie and Clyde were driving a 1934 Deluxe V8 on cross-border heists.
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The first, and in many ways most fundamental problem Ford has had since the 1970s is that nobody there seems to know what they do for a living. Since the early 1980s at least, Ford appears to have split its time between trying to corner fleet sales – historically the least profitable part of the industry by far – while at the same time churning out sporty coupes, big and small SUVs, gas-savers, gas-wasters, work trucks, hatchbacks, and crossovers. Diversity is good up to a point, but Ford’s model lineups since the Carter era have been the Dog and Cat Love Association.
Past a certain point, your brand is going to be associated with a particular mood or impression. BMW, for example, makes most Americans think of high-quality German engineering, while Toyota is associated with reliability and Chrysler encourages people to think about buying a Toyota. Ford could have gone the route of either specializing in one or a few markets, such as heavy-duty pickup trucks and the Mustang, for instance, or it could have spun off a few smaller brands to handle its SUVs and station wagons. Instead, criminals in L.A. are using Mustangs to flee from police Crown Victorias while moms drive Escapes (ironically) next to them on the freeway with Starbucks employees in Fiestas, telemarketers in Focuses and middle managers in Fusions past work sites cluttered with F-150s and junkyards filled with Chryslers.
Brand confusion in itself wouldn’t be so bad, except. . .
It’s not hard to be a car company. Make cars, sell cars. Make money, spend money. Need more money? Make better cars and really try to sell them. Maybe ask for more money from customers. Every 20 years, call Congress and ask for a bailout. Not hard.
That said, Ford has earned a reputation on Wall Street for making much of its profits come from firing its workers and closing plants, rather than from, you know, selling lots of cars.
In 2009, Ford laid off tens of thousands of workers when it closed its finance department. When a recession caused a downturn in Europe, Ford’s big recovery plan was to close three factories and. . . expand its model choices in the European market. This caused a jump in Ford’s stock, rather than a swatting with a rolled-up newspaper like the bad dog they were. Making things worse was Ford’s creepy corporate euphemisms for describing what was essentially the displacement of whole cities' worth of loyal employees. Instead of calling the mass firings layoffs, Ford referred to the purges as “people efficiency actions,” which you should read two or three times since it gets a lot more chilling with repetition.
Not content with abusing its employees, Ford has a knack for surprising its customers by charging them extra for sophisticated electronics that are so hilariously overdesigned that human operators aren’t smart enough to figure them out. Such was the case for the proprietary MyTouch dashboard hyperspace warp field generator, installed in multiple Ford cars and trucks, which had to be recalled and expensively retrofitted with knobs that made it look like a steampunk radio set from the 1920s because the touchscreen menus and wonky interface demanded more of the driver’s attention than the driving did.
Obviously, this was something the designers thought of in advance, which is why they designed MyTouch with a state-of-the-art voice interface to supplement the touchscreen. The voice interface also malfunctioned, reportedly missing roughly half of the commands shouted at it at increasingly loud and urgent volume. Even better, the telephone voice call system randomly dials people in your phone directory, such as your ex-girlfriend and the employer you called out sick to this morning so you could go fishing in your new Ford F-150. Fortunately, the most often reported problem with MyTouch was that approximately three-quarters of cellphones currently on the market are not even close to compatible with it, so dialing 911 when the dog farts in the passenger seat is less of an issue for iPhone users.
All of this assumes the touchscreen is working at all. On the bright side, one of Ford’s patented mysterious electrical faults could come along and short the dashboard electronics before you have time to get frustrated with it. Several times a decade, for something like the last two or three decades, Ford has issued massive recalls for multiple lines of both cars and trucks, each time for hundreds of thousands or millions of vehicles.
Some of these faults were alarming. Ford had to recall 300,000 of the Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis to correct a fault that caused the headlights to permanently shut themselves off while driving in the cold and dark, which tends to be exactly the time they’re not supposed to do that. In another fault that triggered a recall, the V8s installed in Ford Explorers would spontaneously eject their spark plugs and start misfiring on all cylinders, which could happen at any time, but which was most likely to happen over bumpy trails and at freeway speeds.
Ford invested $1.4 billion into a transmission factory it owns in Livonia for the new 10-speed automatic transmission that was going to go into the trucks and some Expeditions. Ford was really hyped about this. Company materials talked about the transmission like it was Commander Data working the ops position on the bridge of the Enterprise. Apparently, the new transmission used a smart computer system to sense the road surface and monitor your driving mode; then it would choose what it thought was the best gear to put you in, whether you were hauling or towing or rolling up and down hills.
Unfortunately, Ford’s transmission, in its wisdom, appears to have decided the best gear for parallel parking on a hill is either neutral or one of the forward gears. This – let’s call it a quirk – wasn’t a one-off issue. The PowerShift dual-clutch transmission was used in the 2011-16 Fiesta and 2012-16 Focus. This transmission was basically a manual shifter that shifted itself in the background as if you had a robot operating it. Once again, the smart bot has a hard time deciding which gear to put you in, and it gets really confused at high speeds. The transmission is also reluctant to downshift, which shouldn’t be a problem if you’re shooting an all-Fords remake of Speed, and you’re going to stay on the freeway at 55 mph until you run out of gas.
When the complaints started rolling in, hopefully from James Gardner and Sandra Bullock, who were both amazing in that movie, Ford’s response was classic. Following the legal advice of a five-year-old who pretends he can’t hear you, Ford claimed A) there is no problem, B) the system takes time to learn your driving style, C) the transmissions only work after you’ve driven thousands of miles on them, and D) there’s an issue, but it’s teaching you to be a better driver, presumably motivating you with sudden, unexpected malfunctions in traffic, which should really keep your 17-year-old daughter on her goddamn toes, amirite?
While the transmission is helping you get ready for your road test at the DMV, the steering wheels on some models are spontaneously detaching themselves from the columns and coming off in your hands. This problem was particular to the Fusions and Lincoln MKZ models, as far as anybody knows – it’s possible this happens a lot, but those models are just the ones that survive the experience so we can talk to the drivers later.
The problem here, which was again mostly hand-waved away by Ford’s engineering and marketing teams for way longer than was necessary, turned out to be loose retaining bolts in the steering column. It seems they can work themselves loose over time. Ford apologized for the inconvenience of having your freaking steering wheel come off in your hands, and then promised they would switch to bolts with “more aggressive threading.”
Somewhere in the depths of a Ford research facility, there’s an engineer who, at one point, was charged with searching for steering column retaining bolts with “aggressive threading.” We like to believe he’s still working on this in his spare time, having already solved the problem for 1.4 million owners, but driven by an obsessive urge to someday find the most aggressively threaded bolts in the world.
Straight talk: Fords are rust buckets. Rust eats through Ford chassis like Pac Man gobbling up pellets. This is such a longstanding, consistent issue with Ford vehicles that you start to wonder if they’re doing it on purpose as if the ‘70s never ended and the lovely burnt umber color rust brings to a body panel is part of the design scheme.
Other cars rust too, of course. The Chevy Nova famously had a rust trap that ate the back half of the car off two years after it was driven off the lot, and some in the industry have speculated that the Vega was actually made from compressed iron oxide. Ford is in a class by itself though. While we know the Nova’s problem was pooling water in the wells, and that the Vega just had inadequate rustproofing at first, Ford’s rust issues started in the all-metal lead sleds of the ‘50s and haven’t stopped yet. In the ‘70s, it became common for people to say their Mustang II had cancer, which was a shorthand way of explaining why they were taking the bus with you. Models particularly badly affected include the:
Not all of the issues Ford grapples with (or fails to grapple with, like those stop-complaining transmissions of theirs) are the company’s fault. A lot of the company’s problems come from Ford getting routinely burned by suppliers and contractors. Over the years, Ford has demonstrated a childlike naivete regarding which parts vendors can be trusted to deliver quality components. If Ford was a human child, it would never pass up a chance to help a stranger in the park find his missing kitten or go for ice cream with the nice man in the unmarked van. The leading mechanical issues with the Ford Focus, for example, are faulty cooling fans, power steering failures, and water leaks. These are almost all caused by bad components they bought from someone else, as was that unfortunate tread separation issue the Exploders had a while back when faulty tires from Bridgestone kept blowing up on the road and flipping Ford’s high-centered SUVs at speed. Even after the problem got diagnosed, and the blame game began, Ford still bought those tires for the better part of a year afterward.
Go with the nice man, Ford. He has a puppy.
Blaming others for our problems is nice, but sometimes it’s all on Ford. Such was the case with the pre-2010 Ford Escapes and Mercury Mariners, whose rear windows might just up and freaking explode if you parked them outside in winter. The wisdom of buying a 2009 Mariner at all aside, even the people with some sense were surprised to come out of the Walmart after Christmas shopping and find what they thought was a break-in, with shattered safety glass all over the rear of their vehicles, only to see all their stuff was untouched in the car and security footage showed nobody close to the car when the window shattered. It was as if Casper the Unfriendly Ghost had gotten bored and was out vandalizing neighborhood cars with Frosty and Rudolph.
Of course, the problem was temperature. Cold air outside contracted the surface of the glass, which wasn’t flexible or strong enough to take it, so it shattered and crumbled into big piles of small chunks. This usually happened right after the vehicle was parked, but it could happen while driving. Ford’s proposed solution was, as usual, unhelpful in a let-them-eat-cake sort of way. Ford advised Escape and Mariner owners to always park in heated garages as if they were stupid for not having thought of that already. When asked about customers who foolishly lived someplace cold and didn’t spend an extra $30 a month to keep the garage warm overnight, Ford rolled its eyes and let out a loud sigh and suggested carrying warming blankets in the SUVs in the tone of voice that suggested they were tired of doing all the thinking in this relationship.
Eventually, the problem was fixed with yet another costly recall.
The Ford Motor Company is not a monster, and their products are (generally) not inferior to the other stuff on the market. Every car company has issues, and some issues persist so long they become part of the brand, like Chrysler’s low build quality, Chrysler’s poor economy, and Chrysler’s bad designs. Ford’s issues are really only as infuriating as they are because they’re happening to cars we genuinely love, except for the Mariners with exploding windows, and quirky issues like these are detracting from what would otherwise be great cars.
Thankfully, Ford has heard at least some of our complaints and is planning some big changes from the 2019 model year on. The company that has traditionally maintained its stock price by laying off workers and contracting operations has announced it will raise quality standards, drop some bad suppliers and – okay, just kidding. They’re discontinuing all but two of their passenger cars and closing several factories in the United States.
Your family is worried, Ford. Call us when you’re ready for help.