Ford has issued the second serious recall of its new 1.6 liter turbo engine, used in the 2013 Ford Escape and Fusion. In July (prior to launch of the Fusion), the Escape was recalled due to potentially damaged fuel lines that could cause engine fires. In this recall, Ford has said that overheating can lead to fluids igniting on hot exhaust components, also causing engine fires.
Back in the early days of turbos, manufacturers used to recommend that vehicles that had been driven hard be idled for anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds or more to ensure fresh oil got into the turbo before turning the car off. This was (and is) because the turbos run at very high speeds, using hot exhaust gases, which means the bearings operate at very high speeds and temperatures. Idling prior to turning off the engine would ensure cooler oil got pumped through the turbo. This is less of an issue these days due to improvements in synthetic oils and oil cooling technology, but serves as a reminder that turbocharged engines, particularly small engines, are operating at higher temperatures than non-turbo models.
That said, one of the cornerstones of meeting the new fuel economy requirements is to move to smaller turbocharged engines. While in the past, turbochargers have mainly been used as a sporty engine option or to boost the performance of diesels, many automakers are now looking to turbos as a way to maintain high peak horsepower while reducing the overall size of the engine, thereby lowering the fuel consumption.
Hot & Complicated
The problems with Ford’s 1.6L turbo engine so far haven’t been directly related to the turbocharger. However, the problems have likely been exacerbated by the heat that the engine has to deal with. As automakers move even smaller, the production complexity and heat issues will likely only grow. Ford’s stumble with the 1.6L Escape and Fusion seems likely to be quickly worked out for these vehicle owners. The real question is whether these issues will ultimately color perceptions of Ford’s quality longer-term.
CarMD has issued a report based on “Check Engine” lights showing that Ford vehicles have fallen from 4th most reliable in 2011 to 9th in 2012, due to higher repair costs. This report, combined with the high recall rate for the new Escape, (this is actually the fourth since July) points to potential dents for Ford’s green car image. The fact is we have recent history (Toyota’s 2010 recalls) that shows how recalls can slow a company’s momentum. I think Ford is doing everything right now that the engine is out in the wild (so to speak), but has the damage already been done?
Ford, while taking it slow on plug-in vehicles, has charged out of the gate on smaller gas engines. As companies shift to smaller engines with potentially greater complexity and higher heat, they can expect to see more challenges on the production side. What this means for consumers isn’t perfectly clear. It seems likely that recalls will be lessened as OEMs and suppliers get used to the “new normal” of small turbo engines, but it also seems likely that smaller doesn’t always mean lower cost. In other words, Ford is likely feeling some growing pains that followers may avoid, but consumers ultimately may pay that price.