More MBS Coverage TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Ford Motor Co. is pursuing hybrids aggressively. But unlike Toyota Motor Corp., it is not seeking huge volumes or using the technology to enhance vehicle performance.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Chief Operating Officer Jim Press this week said 25% of sales could be hybrids by decade's end, and the auto maker has put hybrid-electric powertrains in vehicles for fuel economy (Prius) as well as performance (Lexus RX 400h).

“I'm 100% convinced we have to be in the hybrid game,” Phil Martens, Ford global vice president-product creation, says at the Management Briefing Seminars here.

Phil Martens, Ford global vice president-product development

Ford has its own hybrid strategy. But it will proceed at its own pace, with modest volumes and an emphasis on the technology to augment economy, Martens says.

Ford aims to sell about 20,000 hybrid SUVs this year, and the lineup will expand to five hybrids by 2008.

There are no plans to push up the debut of its Fusion hybrid midsize sedan, slated to bow in 2008, he says.

“It's not as easy as it sounds,” Martens says, as the Fusion will debut with second- generation hybrid technology. “We will keep our timeline.”

And the focus is to improve fuel economy. “We have no plans for performance hybrids per se,” he adds.

But Martens is clear on why it is important to have the technology in Ford's stable, saying it is more than the need for high-profile vehicles in the lineup.

“The technical innovation you get is huge,” he says, including control systems, logistics, emissions management and integration.

Additionally, hybrid technology is scaleable. As volume increases, time and cost come down.

“The system is evolving rapidly,” Martens says. “You're always working on the next generation.” He sees each generation following a 5- to 7-year cycle.

But the future is fuzzy, and Martens will not commit to specific volume targets. He says Ford has a solid plan to meet its own volume commitments, but he cannot peg how large the overall market will be.

That is because, in part, the technology requires a vast infrastructure that is not yet established in North America. It requires additional engineering, testing capability and facilities as well as the ability to produce and shift the technology to multiple models.

“When we decided to pull the (Mercury) Mariner Hybrid ahead a year, we had a standardized approach (developed for its sister vehicle, the Ford Escape Hybrid) so it was easy,” Martens says. “We want a powerpack we can put into anything, and we need a standardized approach to do that.”

Hybrid proliferation also requires a supply base on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Martens cites batteries as an area of “huge technology opportunity,” especially with lithium ion units.

Meanwhile, Martens says he sees high oil prices as a long-term issue that has introduced a “whole new ballgame” to the industry.”

“Our focus on fuel economy has never been higher,” he says, noting Ford also is in “serious studies” on direct-injection gasoline engines.

apriddle@primediabusiness.com