Ford's diesel drama drags on
Power Stroke woes anger buyers, drive up warranty costs
By Richard Truett
Automotive News / December 12, 2005
James and Penny Schrader have bought Fords faithfully for 30 years.
But persistent problems with the Power Stroke diesel engine in their 2004 F-250 pickup have unraveled three decades of brand loyalty. The Schraders, both 63, put a second mortgage on their home in Linden, Mich., to buy the $45,000 truck. Now they say they'll probably never buy another Ford.
"My husband wouldn't look at anything else," says Penny Schrader of their pickup. "But I don't care how good their product was in the past. They haven't treated me well as a loyal customer."
The Schraders aren't alone. Ford Motor Co. has been sued at least 58 times by consumers who bought 2003- and 2004-model Power Stroke trucks. The company also has fielded more than 12,000 consumer complaints, according to Ford's internal warranty data.
Not a minor flaw
This isn't a minor flaw that Ford can dispatch with basic service. The Power Stroke's warranty repair costs are battering Ford's bottom line. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts last March, a company executive acknowledged that Ford's diesel-powered super-duty pickups suffered from quality problems.
Ford has declined to estimate the cost of fixing those defective Power Stroke engines. But Ford has acknowledged that its warranty costs ballooned by $500 million through the first nine months of 2005, compared with the same period a year earlier.
Ford says it is honoring the engine's five-year, 100,000-mile warranty and doing everything it can to repair it. And newer versions of the engine in late 2004- and 2005-model pickups are more reliable.
But the problem will continue to fester. Ford already has sold more than 384,000 diesel trucks with potentially defective engines. And customers like the Schraders appear ready to abandon the brand.
Fixing its diesel problems - in terms of both engine performance and public confidence - is crucial for Ford because the stakes are enormous: Diesels account for about 25 percent of all F-series sales, and the 6.0-liter Power Stroke is a $5,000 option. The engine is offered on medium- and heavy-duty pickups, and had been offered on the discontinued Ford Excursion SUV.
From 225,000 to 250,000 diesel-powered F-series trucks are sold each year, at prices ranging from $30,000 to $50,000-plus.
If Ford can't put things right, the Power Stroke could cause a consumer backlash similar to that of Chrysler's problem-plagued Ultradrive transmission, which alienated minivan owners in the early 1990s.
"If this isn't fixed, and fixed right, and customer satisfaction put back on track, there will be fallout," says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research Inc. in Bandon, Ore. "Ford will lose buyers to Dodge and General Motors."
Trouble from the start
The 6.0-liter Power Stroke engine has been troublesome from the day it was launched in the fall of 2002. It replaced a somewhat unrefined 7.3-liter diesel.
The powertrain was built by a longtime Ford diesel supplier, International Truck and Engine Corp., of Melrose Park, Ill.
For this version of the engine, International Truck designed a unique high-pressure fuel-injection system.
Most automakers use only electronic controls to operate the fuel injectors in a common-rail system. But the Power Stroke's fuel injectors are operated by a high-pressure oil pump as well as electronics.
According to several of the 150-plus complaints posted on the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some trucks never even made it home from the dealership before the fuel injectors or turbocharger failed.
The engine also has been plagued with leaky fuel injectors, oil leaks, broken turbochargers, wiring harness troubles, faulty sensors, defective exhaust gas recirculation valves and bad computers.
Since the engine debuted three years ago, Ford has issued at least 77 technical service bulletins. That is far above average, even for a new engine. These bulletins tell mechanics how to diagnose and fix various problems.
By comparison, there have been eight service bulletins for GM's Duramax diesel V-8 and none for the diesel engine in the Dodge Ram truck. Both engines debuted at about the same time as the Power Stroke.
After just a year on the market, International almost completely redesigned the Power Stroke's fuel system, replacing or redesigning nearly 500 parts. That helped reduce the number of problems, but did not cure the engine of all its ills. Ford has voluntarily recalled the engine at least twice to fix various problems.
The troubles have caused a rift in relations between Ford and International.
The engine can be repaired and made reliable, says International spokesman Bob Carso. Engineers from Ford and International have fixed the problems that plagued the early versions of the engine, he said.
But Carso says the engine is extremely complex and requires "outstanding diagnostic capabilities" to properly identify and repair the faulty parts.
Less help from Ford?
When the Power Stroke's troubles surfaced, Ford tried hard to keep customers happy. In the summer of 2003, Ford took the unusual step of buying back 500 trucks, mostly because of fuel system problems.
But two diesel technicians say Ford has changed the way it deals with the engine problems.
"When they first started out with the 6.0-liter, Ford had a team that was looking over every bit of it and just doing whatever it took to get them fixed," says Mark Ward, a master diesel technician at Landers McLarty Ford in Bentonville, Ark. "And then that just shut off like a light when Ford found out how much losses they were having."
Ward contends Ford is trying to shift more repair costs onto consumers.
"We used to replace turbochargers left and right if the fins had any damage to them," he says. "Now they (Ford) won't accept a turbo back with any fin damage. They are saying if there is any (turbocharger) fin damage whatsoever, it has to be from a dirty air filter. You have to inform the customer that Ford won't pay for that. It's $700, plus the labor."
The fin is the part of the turbocharger that is driven by engine's exhaust system.
"When the 6.0 is running properly, it has much better performance than the 7.3 did," says Charles Ledger, a Ford master technician from Oroville, Calif. "Unfortunately, the 6.0 is plagued with sensor problems." Ledger dispenses advice on his Dieselmann Web site (intellidog.com/dieselmann/home.html).
Ford: No change in policy
Cisco Codina, president of Ford's customer service division, says Ford is not blaming consumers or trying to shift repair costs onto buyers.
"We have not changed any policies whatsoever as it relates to defective material," Codina says. "We don't try to put this blame on the customers. We will spend whatever amount of time and money necessary to help customers who have problems."
Not all of the Power Stroke's defects can be blamed on Ford and International. Consumers may cause problems by installing unauthorized parts that boost engine output. Aftermarket computer chips and exhaust systems can upset the delicate tuning of the engine and cause head gaskets to blow out, Ward says.
Last year Ford and International officials told Automotive News that the Power Stroke's troubles were over. But that turns out to be only partially true.
The engines made today have a better record for reliability, according to NHTSA (see story, above). But those 2003- and early 2004-model engines keep breaking down. And consumers are angry at having to return to the dealership time after time for "reflashes" - new software to be installed in the vehicle's engine computer or other repairs.
The number of complaints for 2005 Power Stroke engines has dropped sharply compared with earlier versions since last year's redesign of the engine's fuel system.
But there still are thousands on the road that are not reliable - and may never be. Design deficiencies in some faulty parts, Ward says, have not been addressed.
"If you look at the part number at the new one you are putting on, it's identical to the one you are taking out," notes Ward, the Arkansas technician. "If you start out with something cheap, what do you expect to happen?"
Ward details the engine's troubles and Ford's technical service bulletins on his Web site, flatratetech.com.
The Power Stroke's troubles are reminiscent of Chrysler Corp.'s A-604 automatic transmission - dubbed Ultradrive - that was introduced in Chrysler minivans in 1989. The first versions of the electronically shifted transmission had more problems than a calculus book. Technicians couldn't fix them, consumers were fuming, and Chrysler ended up replacing thousands of transmissions under warranty.
But Codina says Power Stroke has generated more complaints than rival diesels simply because more diesel Fords are on the road.
Says Codina: "We try to address each and every (problem) as we became aware of them. I am sure I am not aware of all of them. But if they (consumers) come to us, we try to do our very best. But today if you have one or two problems, people are not very happy with you."
One more chance
As for the Schraders, three days before they were to appear before a Lemon Law arbitration panel in November, Ford offered to buy back their old truck, waive mileage costs and put them in a 2006 model.
After consulting with a lawyer, the Schraders took the deal. The couple left Michigan a few days later for a road trip West. But they are still angry with Ford because they had to spend a year trying to get their truck fixed.
And they will not cut the new truck any slack. If the new truck so much as sputters, James Schrader says he will pull into the nearest Dodge dealership and trade it for a Ram.