DEARBORN – Ford Motor Co. is seeking a quick ascendancy to all-wheel-drive leadership in the U.S. car market and is counting on a trio of products coming in 2004 to help it get there sooner rather than later.

The auto maker currently only offers AWD on the Ford Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator in its domestic brand lineup, in addition to the Jaguar X-Type and five of the eight Volvo brand products on U.S. roads.

Ford will offer AWD as an option on the Freestyle.

By year’s end, the auto maker will add the Ford Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle cross/utility vehicle and the Mercury Montego sedan to the AWD mix. (See related story: Ford Flouts New Car Flagship)

Ford is aiming to take “the leadership position in AWD,” says Amanda DeMouth, Lincoln-Mercury director-large car marketing plans.

The auto maker will tack AWD onto the option list of an undisclosed Lincoln car in the near future, she says, in an effort to match the many foreign makes offering AWD on luxury cars.

Adding fodder to its leadership target will be the ’06 Ford Futura midsize sedan and its litany of planned derivatives, at least some of which will be available with AWD. The Futura-based vehicle lineup reportedly is expected to net Ford 800,000 units in sales for the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands over the span of three years, starting next year.

For now, the company believes it can expect 15%-20% of Five Hundred buyers to opt for AWD, according to Phil Kurrle, powertrain supervisor-Five Hundred, Freestyle and Montego. Take rates of 30% are expected among Montego buyers but Lincoln-Mercury President Darryl B. Hazel has said the option could run as high as 50%. Freestyle take rates are expected to hover around 40% – accounting for 40,000 of the targeted 100,000-unit sales. (See related story: All-Wheel Drive May Strike Chord for Mercury)

Job One for all three vehicles is slated for July or August, depending on the vehicle. Ford has not released all sales projections and in April will finalize the production mix.

This isn’t the first time Ford has floated the idea of AWD on Ford- and Mercury-badged cars. In the 1980s, the option was available on the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz in an attempt to compete with emerging importers such as Subaru of America Inc., known for AWD technology.

DeMouth says the market is ripe for an explosion in AWD demand, citing Ford research estimating that 42 nameplates sold in the U.S. will have it as an option by 2006, up from 23 in 2003. The AWD purchase rate shot up 13% between 2000 and 2002.

About 50% of consumers tell Ford they “aspire to own AWD in their next vehicle,” and 70% of buyers in the West, Midwest and Northeast say it is “extremely important or very important in their next car.”

Kurrle says customers will opt for AWD because it offers traction and stability. He also says Ford’s system has a built-in “reliability” factor as most of the technology already is in use in Volvo vehicles.

Ford’s forthcoming sedans and CUV use the second-generation Haldex AWD system that is 90% common with the one used on the Volvo XC90, according to Kurrle. Changes were made to accommodate the Ford line’s continuously variable transmission and suspension calibration.

Like the Volvos, the Ford and Mercury vehicles will drive as front-wheel-drive cars until slip is sensed, at which time hydraulic pressure inside a Haldex coupler engages clutch plates to pull as much as 40% of engine torque to the rear wheels, kicking in when one-eighth’s worth of a rotation of wheel spin occurs. The AWD system adds about 125 lbs. (57 kg) to the weight of the vehicles.

Kurrle says the slightly revamped Ford system has been tested as superior against AWD systems Ford tested in Chrysler Group products. Tested against the AWD Chrysler Pacifica on a 17% incline, the Ford sedan sensed wheel slippage and adjusted instantaneously to shoot the car up the hill, while the Pacifica took 15 seconds to respond, he says.

A Ford spokesman says one of the new vehicles also outperformed an AWD-equipped Pontiac Aztek in performance tests.