When lifting the curtain on its refurbished Design Centre at Campbellfield, Ford Australia gave its strongest indication yet that the rumoured Ranger seven-seat SUV may not be far away.
Speaking to motoring media from Australia, Thailand and India, Ford public affairs director Sinead Phipps underscored the importance of the Ranger project, and of Ford's global ambitions for it beyond the current vehicle.
"Ranger is just the first vehicle for the T6 platform," she said.
While Ford has a blanket policy not to comment on future model plans, such an admission - one certain to ignite speculation - would perhaps indicate that engineering and design is well-advanced on the new car.
Of course, Ford Australia's local design team can be expected to take the lead in the development of this vehicle as it did in the development of the Ranger. That car is now sold in 180 countries and is a pivotal vehicle in Ford's global model spread.
Ford's new Design Centre at Campbellfield, placed strategically for the Asia Pacific region, is one of only three such facilities across Ford's global operation.
The other centres being in Cologne, Germany, and Dearborn, USA.
Its place in Ford's global design and engineering program, and underlined by the new investment here, would seem to indicate the value Ford US places on the design and engineering capabilities of its Australian operation.
"The centre is here to design and develop vehicles as desired by the company," Ford Australia boss Bob Graziano said.
While headquartered here, and a hub for satellite facilites in South Africa, India and China, the new Design Centre was developed under Ford's 'One Ford' global strategy, and constructed, according to Graziano, with "all Ford dollars".
Home to more than 900 engineers and designers (including those in the satellite facilities), and linked through Ford's 35 supercomputers located at Dearborn, the new design facility can interact in real time with Ford's other design centres around the world.
"We can design a car in seven locations at the one time," chief engineer Adam Frost said.
That it has such a role to play, is "demonstrative of the capabilities of this team", Mr Graziano said.
“The automotive industry is the largest R&D contributor in the Australian manufacturing sector, our ability to work on global programs is a critical part of this."
“Australia is one of only 13 countries in the world that can design, engineer and produce a vehicle from the ground up.”
Pivotal to the capability of the new facility is the Virtual Design Centre (VDC), also one of only three in Ford's global engineering and design footprint.
The VDC features a 6m x 3m high-resolution screen, capable of projecting design concepts in 3D, and linked in real-time globally through similar facilities in Cologne and Dearborn to enable "real-world global communication and appraisal of a new vehicle".
Ford's new safety technology - Active City Stop - was also on show. Offered now for the first time as part of the optional Sports Executive Pack on Focus Titanium, Ford Australia is first to offer such technology for a C-segment vehicle retailing under $40,000.
At speeds up to 30km/h, Active City Stop scans the area ahead of the car for obstacles, and, if a collision is likely, the brakes are pre-charged, then applied automatically if there is no steering or braking input from the driver.
It works. And perhaps some of those nose-to-tail collisions in slow moving traffic (with drivers distracted by mobile phones and the like) may now be avoided.
Naturally, being a Ford event, it was inevitable that the future of Ford's Australian manufacturing operation would surface as a story.
Responding to commentary sparked by a response from Bob Graziano that "we believe you can have R&D without manufacturing", Sinead Phipps told ABC news, "Bob was talking about manufacturing in terms of the context of the design process.
"He further went on to clarify that we believe we're lucky in Australia that we have all three vehicle development stages here, that we can design and engineer, we can manufacture and we can test here."
We were there; and that's how we heard it. And whatever the future for Falcon, Ford's new Design Centre is a feather in the cap for Ford Australia and recognition of the capabilities of its Australian engineers and designers.
TMR Managing Editor