Just three weeks before the official Job 1 date, Ford Motor Co. already is searching for ways to boost output of its all-new Escape sport/utility vehicle (SUV) at its Kansas City, MO, plant.

With 35,000 sold dealer orders so far, Ford now says Kansas City will build closer to 110,000 units (Escape/Mazda Tribute) by year's end, not 70,000 as was first forecast. The company also is searching for a way to increase production for Europe.

While capacity at Kansas City is 260,000 vehicles, Ford hopes to be able to build 300,000 Escape/Mazda Tributes in calendar 2001.

To handle the increased demand, Ford is trying to find and eliminate bottlenecks at the Escape/Tribute plant in areas such as the paint shop and body shop. Adding more paint spray guns and longer ovens or additional robots are among options. Adding a third shift also is being considered.

The boost in output, however, could present serious issues for suppliers. Dealer orders for well-equipped Escapes are running even richer than Ford anticipated. Paul Linden, Escape project management supervisor, says Ford edged upward its forecast of well-equipped versions of the SUV in anticipation of a richer than usual demand. But apparently it wasn't enough.

Escape suppliers now are being asked to accommodate an even richer mix of vehicles, but some partsmakers are reluctant to do so.

All of the Escapes ordered so far are V-6, 4-wheel-drive XLT versions. The base model comes with a 2.0L 4-cyl. The leather seat rate is running between 60% and 70%, not the 25% take rate that Ford expected in the early going. Magna International, supplier of interior trim and other components, is being asked to boost its output as a result. Even the in-dash six CD stereo is running ahead of forecasts (now at 60%), which could present problems for Visteon Corp., which currently can build just half of that volume.

Ford begins “integrated builds” of the Escape Monday (May 22), running at a rate of about 10 units an hour, then slowly increasing speed into mid-June when Escape units begin shipment. The declared Job 1 date is June 12. By September, Ford expects to be building 60 Escape/Tribute SUVs an hour.

Mazda will get 75% of the initial build in a bid to let it get a jump before Ford flexes its massive marketing and distribution muscle. The favorable production mix also is said to be repayment from Ford for holding up launch of the Tribute.

Production will swing to Ford's favor once 20,000 Tributes are built, which is expected to occur in the third week of July. However, the switch could happen sooner if Mazda sales don't keep pace or if Mazda suppliers fail to meet the initial heavy Tribute build schedule.

For instance, the rear quarter glass on the Tribute is different than that on the Escape, but the tool that Visteon uses to make the glass is designed to make three Escape glass windows for every one Tribute. That can't be changed.

Right-hand-drive versions of the Escape, badged as Maverick in 19 European markets, will be built at Mazda's plant in Hofu, Japan. Current forecasts for RHD sales are at 40,000 units, but a spokesperson says Ford would like to get closer to 60,000 units.

Ford insiders say Escape offers 105% more value than the Honda CR-V, but will be priced at just 98% of the CR-V, at least for the first year. A 4-wheel-drive XLT Escape, equipped with a V-6, privacy glass, side air bags, stereo CD, step bars and antilock brakes is priced at $23,710, including a $515 destination charge. It climbs to $25,475, when leather seats, moonroof and 16-in. wheels are ordered.

Because Ford views the Escape as an important part of its SUV lineup, it will take lead engineering responsibility on the '03 model. Mazda was responsible for the majority of the engineering on the soon-to-go-on-sale Escape/Tribute, while Ford was the lead on design.

It is not known which of the companies will be the lead on the diesel version of the Escape, also due in '03. Mazda would like to use its 2.0L diesel, but Ford is said to favor a 2.2L direct-injection diesel that the company is jointly developing with Peugeot. That engine will be built in Dagenham, U.K.