More stories related to New York Auto Show DEARBORN – Ford Motor Co.’s Special Vehicle Team may be sporting a new look, but the in-house performance unit’s target remains steady: Profitability.

With that in mind, don’t expect to see more than five SVT-branded products populate the lineup at one time, Phil Martens, group vice president-product creation says.

“When you get beyond (five products), it gets too expensive, and you really have to be able to fund and manage the whole portfolio,” he says.

Volume of each model will not exceed 10,000 units, and capable cars priced in the $20,000-$40,000 price range should play a key role in SVT carving a niche in the growing performance market.

Martens says performance units, when done right, do more than just help an auto maker’s image. They also prop up the company’s bottom line.

Martens says SVT needs to make money, garner respect.

“You can always build a supercar or the highest-end (product), but that drives the cost of doing it up,” he says. Programs have the capacity to “cross the line between affordable, profitable projects to very expensive, not-profitable pretty quick. You’ve got to find that balance…between the ideals of what you want and the reality of what you can do.”

As of late, SVT devoted much of its time developing the $140,000 GT supercar, which has met strong demand but probably will be marginally profitable, if not a money-loser due to costly recalls and the niche nature of manufacturing, distribution and service.

In order to find balance in the future, Martens began retooling SVT following his ascension to Ford North America product chief in 2003, installing a new set of goals and personnel, while also upping the budget an undisclosed amount and increasing employment rolls by 80 people to 200.

As a result of the shuffle, longtime SVT Director John Coletti and former future product head Chris Theodore were replaced with former Mustang Chief Engineer Hau Thai-Tang. Coletti and Theodore retired at the end of 2004, opening the door for Thai-Tang, a trusted protege of Martens, to have complete control of both SVT and advanced product creation. (See related story: Mustang Engineer to Head Advanced Product Creation, SVT)

Former Jaguar North America marketing head George Ayers replaced Tom Scarpello in SVT’s top sales job. Jay O’Connell was brought on as chief vehicle engineer following Marten’s personal invitation, and Tom Jones, an experienced truck engineer, was brought in “to take more of a portfolio look” at SVT. Jones and O’Connell are SVT alumni.

The first vehicle to launch under the revised SVT banner is the Mustang-based Shelby Cobra GT500. It comes in 2006 as the most power-laden factory-produced Mustang ever and will carry a base price tag in the $40,000 range. (See related story: Martens: IRS ‘Not Necessary’ for High-Powered Shelby Cobra)

The next vehicle, Sport Trac Adrenalin, bows in 2007 with standard all-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission. Martens is not saying what comes after that, but an F-150-based Lightning (with a 500-hp output number) and a go-fast version of the Fusion with AWD may be in the offing.

Additionally, SVT’s role will not be restricted to Blue Oval products, even though the Ford brand will be the only one to get SVT-badged vehicles.

SVT executives say a Lincoln or a non-SVT Ford product (such as a Focus) could get an “engineered by SVT”-type badge on the engine cover or doorsill in order to build a bridge to buyers looking for a modest dose of performance. Success of this sort of venture hinges on Ford’s ability to resurrect the SVT image to cult-like status among enthusiasts.

BMW AG’s M performance unit, which serves as Martens’ benchmark in the segment, often offers vehicles with “M” components on cars that are not in the actual “M” lineup.

Other M practices Martens is eying concern product development and manufacturing.

“They build their products in the mainstream production facility,” he says, adding that both BMW and Ford have devoted performance-engineering centers.

He also says BMW Ms “always lag the (base) production (car debut) by about a year to two years, so they give themselves the chance to use the production chassis, performance and architecture.”

By the time the Shelby Cobra debuts, the redesigned Mustang will have been on sale two years, and the Sport Trac Adrenalin comes about one year after a redesigned Sport Trac bows. If a Lightning is on tap, it would trail the ’04 F-150 redesign by at least four years and would come relatively close to the ’09 redesign on tap for the F-150.

Finally, BMW has “been very consistent over a long period of time and they’ve built some core competencies in chassis and vehicle development,” Martens says, admitting Ford has some steps to take to match its German competitor.

“To a certain degree, we have to earn that. You know you can’t come out of the box and say we’re an M division,” he says. “I look at those guys as a benchmark. I think they have all the ingredients that have proven to be enormously successful over a long period of time.”

jstoll@primediabusiness.com