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Will This Be Ford's Achilles' Heel?

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I'll say this: When Consumer Reports doesn't like something, it doesn't beat around the bush.

And it really doesn't like Ford's (NYSE: F  ) much-acclaimed (in some circles) and much-maligned (in others) MyFord Touch control system.

In fact, the benchmark consumer advocacy magazine dislikes the system so much that its ratings of new Fords have dropped sharply -- despite the Blue Oval's huge improvements in quality and competitiveness in nearly every other area.

And that could turn into a big headache for Ford.

A big-margin system that generates big headaches
Consumer Reports has been complaining about Ford's touchscreen "infotainment" system for a while, but the magazine's complaints hit a new high with an article on Wednesday, titled "Why the MyFord Touch Control System Stinks." (Like I said, it doesn't beat around the bush.)

MyFord Touch is a series of systems, optional on most Ford products, which builds on Ford's acclaimed (mostly) SYNC system. SYNC, developed jointly with Microsoft and Sony, provides voice-activated controls for in-car functions like the stereo and Bluetooth phone integration.

MyFord Touch goes beyond SYNC by eliminating many of the car's conventional control switches, instead relying on touchscreen controls and displays for a host of functions, including the car's audio and climate control systems.

SYNC and MyFord Touch have been popular options on new Fords and Lincolns, and they've been big contributors to the company's profits -- especially in North America, by far Ford's most profitable region. The systems' popularity (and profitability) has spawned a raft of imitators, including the new CUE system that General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) has begun rolling out on its latest Cadillacs.

But from Consumer Reports' perspective, the fact that MyFord Touch has spawned imitators is part of the problem.

Why CR's complaint is a problem for Ford
The gist of the magazine's complaint with MyFord Touch has two parts: First, the system is complicated to operate. Drivers can't just feel for the controls, it says; they need to look to find them -- and that can be time-consuming because some of the touchscreen "pages" are cluttered with buttons. And that leads to the second part of its complaint: Controls that require the driver to look away from the road are a safety hazard.

For Consumer Reports, that's a big no-no. And it's costing Ford big points in the magazine's much-watched comparison tests. A test released this week ranked Ford's Taurus well below rival sedans from GM, Hyundai (OTC: HYMTF), and Chrysler -- in large part because of the magazine's frustrations with MyFord Touch.

That could be a problem for Ford. The company's quality has improved greatly by many measures in recent years. But thanks to Detroit's ongoing lousy reputation, many consumers have remained reluctant to consider Ford's products over known-quantity brands Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) .

This won't help. Consumer Reports is taken very seriously by lots of car shoppers. Even non-subscribers tend to have a general impression of where the major brands fall in the magazine's ratings. Ford's renaissance has been driven by its much-improved products -- but if consumers can't be convinced to test-drive those products, the improvement won't matter.

Where does Ford go from here?
Ford has acknowledged complaints from its customers, but many owners say the system just takes a little getting used to. Ford recently released an upgrade to MyFord Touch and its Lincoln counterpart that improved the system's usability a bit, and the company says that 71% of owners with the new upgrade say that they would recommend the system to others.

And the system is impressive to tech-hungry consumers, especially when demonstrated by a dealer who knows it inside and out -- something that has helped Ford's sales. SYNC and MyFord Touch are a big part of Ford's push to reach younger consumers, who as a group aren't as excited about cars as generations past.

But Consumer Reports' scathing critique seems likely to resonate. How will Ford respond? Stay tuned.

Ford's stock has been under pressure lately, dropping to levels not seen in years. But the company is still performing very well at home and is investing heavily for growth abroad. Have these short-term pressures created an incredible buying opportunity, or are there hidden risks with the stock that investors need to know about? To answer that, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Click here to get instant access to this premium report.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. Follow him on Twitter at @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft, General Motors, and Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2012, at 5:34 PM, chrisausten wrote:

    I am glad that Consumer Reports has condemned the Ford (and Lincoln) touch system. This is clearly a case of the inmates being in control of the asylum. We all know the dangers of texting and has caused many deaths...and yet, the car manufacturers are installing the very same thing in new cars. It's impossible to operate the touch screens without looking at it...the same as texting. With conventional knobs and switches, you can operate them by feel, without taking your eyes off the road...much much safer. Car companies are doing this to be "trendy" and appeal to young people...give me a break!...that's like pouring gasoline on the fire...young people are the worst at being distracted behind the wheel, and the idiot car companies are just giving them more "toys" to play with while driving...all in the name of making a few more bucks to stuff in their fat pockets. I hope lots and lots of accident victims start suing the hell out of car companies about these touch screens. These things are fine for cell phones and music players, but keep them out of cars...people are being killed every day just so idiot young people can have something "cool" to play with while driving.

    P.S. - A word about Lincoln....Ford can install all the gadgets they want, but it won't help Lincoln. The answer is very simple - stop building UGLY Lincolns! It's supposed to be a luxury car...HELLO! Make it look like a luxury car...bring back the "formal" look that people like and they will sell. No one wants to pay 40 or 50 thousand for a car that looks like a cheap generic $18,000 car.

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2012, at 6:16 PM, sheldonross wrote:

    Citing Consumer Reports is a new low for a (supposedly) Foolish article.

    MyFordTouch has largely been well-received by more important critics, the consumers.

    Witness Toyota's Entune, Chryslers Uconnect, GM Onstar plus (or whatever it's called).

    These technological goodies are a hit with consumers and the other manufacturers are rushing to catch up.

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2012, at 10:44 PM, sondo1313 wrote:

    It's such a shame. All Ford had to do was tap its local automotive human factors suppliers. We knew distinct IP design tenets...knobs for volume, detents for feedback, don't concoct a requirement for "training" your customers. But Ford went to Bellvue and ginned-up this mess. My MKX still asks me to check websites, add phones, etc...a total waste of real estate for simple, fundamental tasks. Ford...use your supplier knowledge base.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2012, at 4:33 PM, Hutch877 wrote:

    You are supposed to set up the functionality before driving. I am still amazed at the stupidity of such "experts". I suppose that they were reading the manual, looking for the correct keys, texting about their frustration, oh, and driving.

  • Report this Comment On August 25, 2012, at 7:19 AM, rojocron wrote:

    I stopped reading Consumer Report Magazine just because they hate America and american products. Always PRO Japan.When was the last time the editors said anything good about American made products

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