DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. knowingly launched two low-priced, fuel-efficient cars with defective transmissions and continued selling the troubled Focus and Fiesta despite thousands of complaints and an avalanche of repairs, a Free Press investigation found.
The cars, many of which randomly lose power on freeways and have unexpectedly bolted into intersections, were put on sale in 2010-11 as the nation emerged from the Great Recession. At least 1.5 million remain on the road and continue to torment their owners — and Ford.
The automaker pushed past company lawyers’ early safety questions and a veteran development engineer’s warning that the cars weren’t roadworthy, internal emails and documents show. Ford then declined, after the depth of the problem was obvious, to make an expensive change in the transmission technology.
Instead, the company kept trying to find a fix for the faulty transmission for five years while complaints and costs piled up. In the interim, Ford officials prepared talking points for dealers to tell customers that the cars operated normally when, in fact, internal documents are peppered with safety concerns and descriptions of the defects.
The automaker faces thousands of angry customers, including former loyalists who say they will never buy another Ford; hundreds of millions in repair costs, many times without actually fixing the cars; and litigation so serious the company this spring warned investors of the financial threat posed by defects in what Ford called its DPS6 transmission.
Apart from the legal risks, “Total quality related spending for DPS6 could reach $3 billion,” read a 2016 internal report that projected the costs through 2020.
In a statement Wednesday to the Free Press, Ford said conversations during development about “challenges common to innovative new technology” were “normal exchanges.” It said many customers were unaccustomed to the feel of the transmission and acknowledged that, “After the new transmission was on the road, other problems developed. We acted quickly and determinedly to investigate the problems. … While we eventually resolved the quality issues, the solutions were more complex and took longer than we expected. We regret the inconvenience and frustration that caused some consumers.” It acknowledged discussion of switching to a different transmission and said it made choices based on what it thought “best for customers.”
To understand what happened, the Free Press reviewed hundreds of pages of internal documents, emails and court filings from the past decade in which Ford engineers and managers discussed concerns and sought to control damage from the dual-clutch transmission, which enabled the company to tout gas mileage near 40 mpg on the highway.
The Free Press also analyzed consumer complaints to federal safety officials, finding accounts of 50 previously unreported injuries amid more than 4,300 entries about the unreliable transmissions. No deaths are publicly known to have been linked to the defect.
Ford’s position has consistently been that even if the cars slip out of gear while people are driving and they must coast to the side of the road, the cars don’t pose a safety risk because power steering, brakes, passenger restraints and other functions continue to work. Its statement to the Free Press for this story reiterated that “vehicles in which DPS6 was installed were and remain safe.”
Others believe the cars are dangerous, including thousands of vehicle owners, a leading consumer safety advocate and a longtime former Ford quality engineer who spoke to the Free Press. Federal regulators in 2014 conferred with Ford and declined to launch a formal investigation or order a recall of the transmissions.
Internal discussions persisted at Ford for years, at times becoming heated. Consumer blowback came quickly, with the first complaints about the transmissions filed with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration within months of the 2011 Fiesta going on sale. That model year Fiesta was the first vehicle with the DPS6, hitting the market in March 2010, followed by the 2012 Focus, which reached dealerships in March 2011.
Lawsuits on behalf of U.S. owners allege the company defrauded buyers. Ford denies the allegations, but made headlines after settling claims in Australia and Thailand.
Rush to the road
A high-level, confidential analysis by Ford in 2012 acknowledged rushing the cars to production, taking shortcuts to save money and apparently compromising quality protocols instituted with fanfare by then-CEO Alan Mulally. That review, obtained by the Free Press, also said the transmissions would be phased out and a different technology used going forward, but that didn’t happen. The Focus went out of production after the 2018 model year; the 2019 Fiesta is the last of the line.
By the time of the 2012 review, which was labeled “Lessons Learned,” Ford had sold more than half a million of the cars.
“There is no fix at this time,” system testing engineer Tom Hamm wrote separately in an October 2012 email to four colleagues. “We have a task force working on the issue but they haven’t identified any fixes at this time.”
Among the documents the Free Press obtained is a presentation in which Ford told NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations in 2014 that the problems occurred as vehicles aged. That contradicts internal emails, hundreds of consumer complaints about problems in both new and older cars, and an affidavit in 2018 by Ford’s North American powertrain quality manager saying part of the issue was with transmissions “not yet broken in.” The official also said in the affidavit that Ford learned of the problem in 2011.
But on Aug. 31, 2010, just six months before the 2012 Focus hit the market, product development engineer Tom Langeland emailed colleagues and supervisors describing “nasty launch judder” — intense vibration from a stop — that “did not clear up after many miles of driving.”
“We also cannot achieve a driveable calibration that will get us to production,” he wrote. “The clutch torque delivery MUST BE IMPROVED.”
Fourteen months later, a Saginaw driver in a 2012 Focus that had been driven only 500 miles reported this to federal safety authorities: “I was stopped at a parking lot exit waiting to enter a thoroughfare, engine idling, with my foot lightly on the brake. Suddenly, the car accelerated forward, into the traffic lane, as though someone had pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor. I took a 45 mph T-bone on my driver’s side door.”
The driver reported that his “elderly wife suffered a severe heart bruising from the seat belt” and that he figured he was saved by the air bag.
Dozens of owners from throughout the country reached out to the Free Press to share their experiences:
“What is it going to take? Does someone have to die before they get these cars fixed?” asked Carrie Armstrong, 42, of Hendersonville, Tenn. “When I am on the interstate and almost get hit by a diesel truck just because my car will not accelerate and get into gear? I put my life in danger every day I get behind the wheel of this car just to go to work.”
She said she has taken her 2015 Focus to the dealership 10 times for repair. “I bought it new and it started acting up on me two months after I bought it. I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be having these transmission issues right now.’ “
She added: “I’ve got a $5,000 car note left. It’s almost paid off. I’ve owned a Ford Escort, a Ford Explorer, a Ford Fusion and several Mustangs. I’ve put my trust in this company.”
Repairs, not recalls
Armstrong’s repeated repairs are a common experience: Ford’s internal 2016 DPS6 update, marked “SECRET” on each page, notes that 350,000 of the cars “have already reached 3+ repairs in US.”
Lillian Karamanian, a retired clothing store owner from Troy, got rid of her 2011 Fiesta shortly after taking it for a repair. “I wanted to know if I would notice a difference on the surging, hesitation and lack of power. The response was that it would take at least 500 miles of aggressive driving in order to break in the fix and be able to notice a difference. I did everything I was supposed to do and nothing changed. It never got fixed. I kept thinking ‘this is crazy.’”
Legal filings representing current and former owners claim that their 2012-16 Focus and 2011-16 Fiesta cars were prone to “shuddering, slipping, bucking, jerking, hesitation while changing gears, premature internal wear, delays in downshifting and, in some cases, sudden or delayed acceleration.”
Many owners, in their NHTSA complaints, pleaded with regulators to recall the cars.
The 2012-16 Focus and 2011-16 Fiesta equipped with the DPS6 have been the subject of 18 recalls for a range of defects, but none for transmission repair.
Ford has conducted customer service programs for updates and replacement parts and has extended the warranty on the transmissions. By late 2016, Ford documents show, “technical fixes to the Control Module and Clutch are in production and available for both vehicle assembly and service,” but supply of the parts was thousands short of what was needed for replacement. Some owners have gotten new DPS6 transmissions under warranty that have not solved the problems.