How Ford kept its Maverick pickup a secret from everyone: 'Wildly audacious'
Few knew about the project.
"This was very much top secret," Chris Mazur, chief program engineer for the 2022 Ford Maverick pickup, told the Free Press this week. "You had to have special badge access to get past the room's locked doors. The windows on the doors were even covered."
They worked in the bowels of the Ford Product Development Center complex off Village Road in Dearborn for about three years.
Unknowing passersby might have assumed it was a door to junk storage.
But when you got through to the inside and saw what was littered all over the walls, the notes, and desks pushed together, cubicle walls removed, then you knew.
This was the Maverick team.
"We were keeping things close, to try and be the first to market," he said.
A team of about 60 people worked in a nondescript room that used to be an area of the product development building where spare parts were stored. Together they developed the engineering, design, product development, purchasing, supply chain and finance strategy.
Protocol for this project was unlike any other in the 118-year-old automaker's history. Every decision was made together by this team to maximize efficiency and technology to create a pickup that achieved 40 mpg. It was an attempt to accomplish the impossible for a remarkable $19,995.
"Wildly audacious goals, we called them," Mazur said.
They planned to build a hybrid truck as a standard option with traditional payload, towing, fuel economy and roominess in the vehicle.
"We had fundamental physics challenges the team had to solve," Mazur said.
Where teams of people usually work on different parts of a vehicle separately and pass it along as milestones are met, the Maverick team worked in tandem.
"You can react quicker," Mazur said. "You want to fail fast and learn from it. The faster you fail, the easier it is to recover, the better you can be. This allowed us to interact in a completely different way, rather than having a chief engineer periodically reviewing the program with (Ford) vice presidents at set milestones and asking for approval to advance."
Instead, company leadership visited the team weekly to help work through problems, with no PowerPoint or formal presentations or any of things that devour hours with little to show for them. Instead, notes with data and program goals covered the walls.
"By the time we got to the formal milestones and requesting funding, leadership was in-tune with the logic," Mazur said.
Top executives leading the project included Kumar Galhotra, president of the Americas and International Markets Group, and Jim Baumbick, vice president of enterprise product line management, strategy and planning.
Senior leaders from across the company participated and were asked weekly to roll up their sleeves and help the team navigate especially challenging issues.
Not only was this little Ford truck going to be something no one ever expected Ford to design, build and sell in North America but it would go on sale in fall 2021.
"A compact truck, that segment doesn't exist right now in North America," Mazur said. "We had to optimize every element that speaks to fuel economy: aerodynamics, rolling resistance of the tires, frictional loss, inefficiencies you can have in drivetrains with rotating components."
Overall weight had to be balanced with performance capabilities to fulfill expectations of what America has come to assume with a "Built Ford Tough" motto that has led to best-selling trucks 44 years in a row.
Someone wrote "40mpg" on a dry erase board as a "wildly audacious" goal. The team circled it and said, "Let's go for it."
Thing is, any vehicle program can get to fuel economy by selecting incredibly expensive content and then passing that cost onto the customer and raising the price, Mazur said.
Tension was palpable. They looked for ways to save money by optimizing all operational elements, including things such as shipping costs.
In the end, it all penciled out.
They stunned the industry with a surprise June reveal.
"You recently had a completely redesigned F-150, then the electric Lightning F-150, which we knew was coming," said Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Hagerty, the world's largest insurer of classic cars. "Then, just when you think there’s been plenty in truck news — from the same automaker, by the way— this little gem comes out.”
Anyone familiar with the truck market was shocked by news of the new Ford Maverick and its comparatively affordable $19,995 price tag, said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, a car listing and data site.
"That is not something anyone saw coming," he said. "It is bold and innovative. Ford has picked a price point that people would not have expected if you heard the specs — front-wheel drive and standard hybrid drivetrain technology? There is nothing else like this."
Trucks usually have rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, so it's possible traditional truck enthusiasts will scoff, Brauer said. "Front-wheel drive is associated with cars. And this is where the bold comes in. Ford is not going after traditional truck buyers; they're going after an unmet need for a new segment of buyers."
A primary competitor in the compact pickup space would be the Hyundai Santa Cruz, for example.
“Over 50 years ago we launched Maverick, but this Maverick was built to defy expectations as a full hybrid truck delivering great fuel economy, capability and versatility," said Trevor Scott, Maverick marketing manager.
This latest venture is all about helping consumers move from cars to trucks and SUVs — by showing flexibility and versatility not possible with a sedan, Baumbick said. "Its name is as relevant today as it was when it was our entry-level small car."
Ford CEO Jim Farley told the Free Press: "Maverick is one of the coolest products we have released in decades. It's big, as there is nothing like it, and it's affordable and rocks it on the price."
A hybrid vehicle "combines at least one electric motor with a gasoline engine to move the car, and its system recaptures energy via regenerative braking. Sometimes the electric motor does all the work, sometimes it's the gas engine, and sometimes they work together," Car and Driver magazine wrote in an explanatory piece in 2019. "The result is less gasoline burned and, therefore, better fuel economy. Adding electric power can even boost performance in certain instances."
But Ford didn't want to just build an affordable truck with great mileage that's easy to park in cities and parking garages, the company wanted to create a new community — like the F-150 and Mustang have. And Jeep, for that matter.
Ford set out to get customers to interact with their vehicle in a new way, which in turn, would hopefully get customers to start interacting with each other.
During the research process, Ford engineers observed young consumers at community colleges, Lowe's, Home Depot and REI to see how they customize vehicles. They tend to drill into the trucks, potentially cutting into wiring that connects the tail lamp or truck firewalls to access lighting, for example.
"We don't want people drilling or having to create overly complicated solutions," Mazur said. "We started to see things we didn't like which motivated us to design features that make the desired customization project easier for our doers, hackers and do-it-yourselfers. ...
"The ultimate result is what we are calling our 'Flexbed' system — a suite of design features that allow for full customization of the bed. We have even extended that approach to the interior of the vehicle via a unique integrated tether system which allows for yet another level of customization — cupholders, convenience trays, dividers and more."
The Maverick shares its basic engineering with the Ford Escape, Bronco Sport and Lincoln Corsair compact SUVs. It’ll be built alongside the Bronco Sport in Hermosillo, Mexico. The Mach-E is built at the Cuautitlan Stamping and Assembly Plant in Mexico.
Manufacturers expecting to ship a lot overseas often build in Mexico because many countries have placed high tariffs on vehicles built in the U.S.
This is a major play for Ford in the U.S., analysts and company officials say.
"And regardless of whether the Maverick takes the U.S. by storm, the program will be a big success because there is a ready and proven market for this type of vehicle in Latin America and potentially Europe and Asia," said market analyst Jon Gabrielsen.
"Success in the U.S. will mean that Ford's intuition will turn out to have been crazy like a fox," he said.