Chicago Auto ShowCHICAGO – “Mixed messages” might best describe Ford Motor Co.’s initiatives at the Chicago auto show this week.

The company’s Lincoln division unveils its new ’07 Navigator SUV and a larger, longer “L” variant, while simultaneously speaking of a new initiative to increase the availability of ethanol-based E85 fuel as a means to curb the nation’s reliance on imported crude oil.

Before unveiling the new ultra-sized Navigator lineup, Anne Stevens, Ford executive vice president and chief operating officer-the Americas, details Ford’s plans to cooperate with a variety of entities to enhance awareness and availability of E85 in a “Midwest ethanol corridor” that will see 20 additional service stations offering E85 in Illinois and new stations in Missouri.

Stevens says the effort will help hike the number of ethanol-capable service stations to a still-underwhelming 500 (of nearly 170,000) stations nationwide. Ford rival General Motors Corp. also is under way with an ambitious program to promote E85 usage.

Stevens says Ford currently has about 1.6 million vehicles on the road capable of running on E85, which has less energy content than gasoline but burns cleaner and typically costs less.

Adding that Ford recently showed an E85-capable Escape Hybrid cross/utility vehicle, Stevens says if 5% of the nation’s fleet were comprised of ethanol-fueled hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), the country would use 140 million barrels less crude oil annually. (See related story: Ford, GM Use DC Show to Reveal Hybrid Strategies )

All the talk of energy independence does not stop Ford from moving forward with a refreshed Navigator lineup for ’07 that includes an even larger L variant that has a 12-in. (30.5-cm) longer wheelbase, is 14.7 ins. (37 cm) longer overall and has 25 cu.-ft. (0.7 cu.-m) more cargo capacity.

The ’07 Navigator lineup also features an all-new, 5-link independent rear suspension and a stiffer frame Ford says improves handling and refinement. The only engine is the Triton 5.4L SOHC V-8 making 300 hp and 365 lb.-ft. (495 Nm) of torque.

Also making news here is Lincoln’s official announcement of improvements for the Zephyr midsize sedan, which beginning with ’07 models will be called the MKZ, says Francisco Codina, group vice president-North America marketing, sales and service.

In addition to the new name, Lincoln confirms the MKZ will use Ford’s new 3.5L DOHC V-6 and offer the option of all-wheel drive. (See related story: Lincoln Zephyr to Get Duratec 35 in ’07 )

Ford predicts AWD or 4-wheel-drive vehicles will account for 50% of the U.S. market in 2012, double the 25% penetration of AWD/4WD in 2003.

bvisnic@wardsauto.com