ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Green is the new cheap in automotive development and manufacturing. Consider, for example, the 2013 Ford Fiesta.
Viewed one way, the Fiesta, reintroduced in the United States in 2010 after a 30-year absence from this market, is a clever subcompact car
It is the kind of thing that impresses environmental wonks and has brought new respect for Ford Motor Co. as an innovator in the environmentally friendly production of cars and trucks.
But Ford’s corporate mantra of “reduce, recycle and reuse” reflects more than a commitment to environmental preservation. It is a matter of economic necessity, especially in the development and production of low-profit economy cars such as the front-wheel-drive Fiesta.
As prices for raw materials soar, Ford and other car companies around the world are scrambling to cut costs by reusing discarded tires, carpets and detergent bottles in the production of new gaskets, bumpers and other components. The Fiesta’s seats, like those in other new Ford vehicles, are made of what the company’s engineers call “bio-foam,” a resilient, flexible product derived from soybeans.
Examine the “abuse me, stain me, wash me” fabric covering of the Fiesta’s seats. Somewhere in there is a pair of recycled jeans, or other “post-industrial fiber,” as Ford’s engineers call it, reconstituted for new, long-term use.
The rubber-like, tough but lightweight “scrub me all you want” coverings on the Fiesta’s interior door and instrument panels is a composite of recycled materials molded to shape the Fiesta’s youthful, carefree theme.
But what is environmentally clever and innovative to some people is downright cheap to others, a perception that could be playing a role in the current steep decline of Fiesta sales. Sales of the little car are down 30 percent from a year earlier.
Environmental wonks, a group of which I consider myself a converted member, love pointing out all of the neat ways Ford saved money in designing and executing the Fiesta . . . and served the environment in the process.
But feel is everything when it comes to customer affection, or disaffection, for a car or truck. And it is difficult to argue with people, including my wife, Mary Anne, who say that the 2013 Fiesta, cosmetically enhanced over the 2011 and 2012 models, feels cheap.
The interior door-panel covering is scuff-resistant and easy to clean, but it has an unpleasant tactile flimsiness. Other plastic pieces, such as the one framing the center-mounted control console, are toylike in appearance.
Those things might be acceptable to young, financially constrained buyers in search of a fuel-efficient car (29 miles per gallon city, 39 highway) with an appealing price tag. But the empirical evidence says that car will be left behind in favor of a larger, better-appointed car, such as the new Ford Focus, which also uses recycled and renewable materials in many components.
I guess the moral of the Fiesta story is this: Small and cute are fine. Small power
But economy has limited appeal if it feels cheap. It will sell for a while in economically troubled times marked by high fuel prices. But as soon as those fuel prices drop and the economy improves just a little, cheap, no matter how well executed, will be forgotten.