When Jim Hackett took over as chief executive officer of Ford in 2017, he brought with him a design approach he calls “minimum viable prototypes. ” In short, Hackett’s mentality is that an automaker ought to avoid sinking too much money into expensive prototype vehicles, which oftentimes results in a company feeling financially compelled to see a potentially sub-par project to completion.
Ford used this approach to create the 2021 Mustang Mach-E electric crossover, as well as the 2021 Bronco SUV. In the case of the latter, Hackett’s method allowed the team to play around with items such as the vehicle’s removable doors and roof, as well as the placement of the Bronco’s body panels and side mirrors, while affording them the ability to skirt the fine line between creating an homage to the original Bronco while also making the SUV fresh and relevant.
Creating the 2021 Ford Bronco took the typical three years from idea to production-ready vehicle, Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product development and purchasing officer, told MotorTrend in an interview ahead of the global reveal of the 2021 Bronco.
Bronco Family Including Raptor?
Development of the model was done knowing from the outset that it would lead to a family of Bronco-badged vehicles, starting with the body-on-frame two-door and four-door Bronco and the unibody Bronco Sport. Thai-Tang wouldn’t talk about plans for electrification in the future or a Bronco Raptor.
However, he shared that using less-expensive prototypes led to the features he thinks Bronco customers will like the most. The team was encouraged to use “non-precious prototypes that we build very quickly and then test them with customers to get feedback and refine. So we did a lot of stuff with foam core models to explore ideas around removable doors, removable top.”
Because the program was not spending a lot of money on concepts and prototypes, “you can fail fast and then pivot, use the learning to go onto something else.” With the help of foam models, the team realized four full-framed doors are heavy to remove and difficult to store. It was a problem that needed solving. Designers and engineers knew of Jeep Wrangler customers who would take the doors off at the start of a trail, chain the items to a tree, and then come back to retrieve the pieces. That’s not always easy nor convenient, “so we developed a frameless door that allowed us to store all the doors in the back of the vehicle and take it with you,” Thai-Tang said.
Move Those Side Mirrors
The foam mockups also led to positioning the Bronco’s side mirrors at the base of the A-pillar (while still meeting regulations covering the field of vision required). Designers and engineers could get inside the mockup and get a good impression of how much visibility there was, Thai-Tang said.
The development process also leveraged virtual reality. The whole approach is being institutionalized across Ford for global product development and is also being applied to business models. The result is a 30 percent reduction in engineering spend, as well as time to market, Thai-Tang said. “That’s very significant. You can come up with a better solution and you’re not spending a lot of time and resources to make something that is very expensive that is coming off expensive prototype tools. It allows you to be much faster, more frugal.”
Bringing Back an Icon
As for redesigning the Bronco, the product chief said it was not intimidating to bring back the iconic Ford model. The team had prior experience evolving the Mustang. Bronco was, in some respects, easier because it had been out of the market long enough that many potential customers didn’t remember it—or they only remembered the white Bronco from the O.J. Simpson car chase. The biggest challenge: “How much of the past do you want to pay homage to and how do you move it forward so you’re not just a curator.”
Expanding the Bronco name was an intentional strategy. Ford’s chief operating officer, Jim Farley, recognized that the SUV segment is still growing, however, there is a lot of competition and the options are quickly becoming very commoditized. “If you don’t have a differentiated product position in the marketplace, it’s very hard to command any value in pricing. So we intentionally made the decision, we’re not going to aim for the middle—don’t try to sell vanilla ice cream but Rocky Road and, maybe, Superman ice cream—to appeal to a unique set of customers.”
“So we intentionally said we would do a Bronco family with the two-door, four-door, and Bronco Sport. And we purposely re-positioned the Escape to be an on-road, more progressive vehicle, which created room for the Bronco Sport to go after the other extreme: The off-road enthusiast. I think it’s going to work well for us. It’s not going to substitute one for the other. So we’ll gain new customers and differentiate from everybody else in the marketplace, which will allow us to command pricing,” Thai-Tang said.
Ford is confident the new products, part of a shift from cars to SUVs and pickups, will pay off. The Bronco will be built at the company’s Michigan Assembly Plant that used to make the Ford Focus and Ford C-Max. “We made a decision that we would exit traditional passenger sedans, and we took the money we would have used to update them and used it to bring new products like Bronco and Bronco Sport to market,” Thai-Tang said. In 2021, when the Michigan Assembly Plant is building the Ranger and Bronco, the plant will generate an additional $1 billion in annual profit relative to when it made cars. Discontinuing the cars was controversial, “but the decision was worth a billion at that plant starting next year.”