If the Glass House gets its way, Ford Motor Co.'s unusually early start on seat-comfort development for the '05 Ford Freestyle, Five Hundred and Mercury Montego shared-architecture vehicles will be a key to boosting customer satisfaction scores closer to the top of the industry.

Seat comfort, traditionally a last-minute consideration in new-vehicle development, was pushed to the forefront of the cross/utility vehicle and sedan programs before the arduous regimen of seasonal testing, Craig Sedik, Ford's seat-comfort attributes leader, tells Ward's.

The front-seat attributes had to be set in stone prior to testing the occupant classification system, which senses whether a passenger is sitting in the front seat and deactivates the airbag if the person weighs below a minimum standard.

Last-minute changes to seat comfort — which are determined by such factors as foam size, metal rigidity and how a seat is mounted to the vehicle — potentially could have held up the entire vehicle launch.

That meant Sedik's team needed to crack the comfort equation about a year and a half earlier than is typical, which was a welcome change from the last-minute, cost-squeezing mode that comfort engineers often work in.

“We locked (comfort) down so much earlier than normal programs and, because of the occupant-classification system, we didn't have carte blanche to just go and change it,” Sedik says.

“The seat pretty much had to stay fixed. If we changed to foam or we changed the structure, how the calibration of that crash sensor worked would have to go through another seasonal testing, which could (have delayed) the whole thing.”

Ford's seat-comfort team, says Sedik, didn't care why it was getting the nod earlier in the process; all it saw was a green light to deliver class-leading performance.

“We looked at this requirement that was delivered to us, (and) we said we had a golden opportunity to be first instead of reacting to everything else in the car,” he says. “We set some very high customer satisfaction targets with this car, and we saw right up front the seats were going to be a key player in (achieving) them.”

Working with Volvo Cars, which created the platform on which the Freestyle/Five Hundred is built, and seat-supplier Lear Corp. (which supplies seats for Volvo's S80 sedan), Ford devised a “tuned seating” platform designed to lessen road impact on occupants.

Sedik's team started with the S80 seat as a benchmark “because of the performance of the seats and the initial public feedback that we got saying the seats turned out really well,” he says.

Ford did little to change seat construction from Volvo's design other than swap out some European materials not available in the U.S. with local components.

However, the auto maker did adopt “sliding scale” internal and external surveys to determine how the Ford products could be better tuned to absorb vibration created by U.S. road surfaces and how to adjust seating position to respond better to the Freestyle/Five Hundred's high hip-point, which sits as much as 4 ins. (10 cm) higher than the competition.

“I call it a ‘Three Bears’ kind of a survey: Better than, worse than or just right,” Sedik says, explaining that Ford stiffened the foam, toughened the metal basket that holds the foam in place and bumped up the rigidity of the seat pan, according to the survey's recommendations.

Surveys and stiffened components would have been worthless if the foundation of the seat had not been tweaked, however.

Seat bases typically are bolted to the floor pan, which is prone to vibrate significantly when the vehicle is rattled, making it difficult to consistently predict the comfort level of seats on various road surfaces. “The floor pan sometimes can be like a drumskin,” Sedik explains.

To stabilize the seat, Ford tied the seat base into the frame of the vehicle and into a horizontal crossbeam, instead of bolting it to the seat pan. The design allowed engineers to tune comfort characteristics much more predictably, as the frame and crossbeam are exponentially more stable than a floor pan.

Ford's innovation mirrors a strategy employed by Volvo, which is considered a comfort leader within Ford's global brands.

Key to Volvo's “Side Impact Protection System” is a structural reinforcement that extends horizontally between the B-pillars and behind the front-passenger compartment called the SIPS bar, which serves as part of the anchor for the seat in addition to the side rails.

Volvo's SIPS structure was migrated to the Freestyle/Five Hundred program and renamed the “SPACE” (side-protection and cabin-enhancement) system. It uses the same horizontal SIPS or SPACE crossbar, which doubles as a seat anchor and is an integral part of its structure.

While Sedik does not disclose the extra cost vs. traditional seating programs, he salutes Ford's willingness to invest more money into seats than has been typical past practice.

“I've got to compliment my management for staying with us and listening to us when we hit them up for more and more things to put in the seat and the extra money that we're spending for the materials we chose,” he says. “Our argument was, ‘You're going to touch this 100% of the time you're in the car. Please let's put our money here.’”

However, even if Ford wanted to skim cost off the seat program, the way development was structured made it impossible.

“We were (nearly) the first ones…to say, ‘OK, this is what seat comfort is going to be,’” says Sedik. “We were able to deliver that with our investments as they were and with our targets being made. Subsequent for the team to shake out some costs, we were actually lucky enough to be frozen into that.”

And the Freestyle/Five Hundred seats could find their way into more Ford products.

“I can't speak to what our future programs are doing except to say it is something we are holding in high regard, and it is being definitely integrated into what we do for our future programs,” Sedik says, emphasizing the heightened role of Volvo in Ford's future vehicle development.