Ford SUV experience – Clark Stable

You may be fully aware that Ford have been in the business of making cars since 1908 but what you may not know is that they have been making SUV’s for over a half a century too.

When they introduced the original Ford Bronco in 1965 with a press release touting a “completely new line of four-wheel-drive vehicles,” the base “roadster” model had no roof, no doors and, for a real wind-in-your-hair experience, a fold-flat windshield. Customers looking for the additional protection from the elements offered by a doors and a roof had to pay for them as options. On the upside, once you paid for them, doors were fitted with locks as a standard feature.

Nowadays, a quick look at any busy street and you’ll see that the SUV market is incredibly popular and it’s growing fast (it is predicted that it will be up to 40% by 2020), elevated ride height and increased functionality/usability are a tip of the iceberg in terms of why. The fundamental requirements of an SUV have not changed since the first Bronco was introduced but what has changed is the demand for a greater variety of SUVs, that and the growing expectations for the capabilities that they need to deliver.

Being one of the most popular car manufacturers on planet, Ford evidently know a thing or two about what we look for in SUV’s, but to prove it, they took us to the Philippines to show us what they have in their current stable and give us a thorough understanding of how they all fit into our lives. Although it took us 6 hours to get to (don’t get me started), roughly 65km North West of central Manila and 5k’s west of Angeles (not Los) is the Clark Freeport Zone. Formally a US Military facility (until 1991 when they up and left 2 days before Mt Pinatubo erupted), it’s now a 4,400 hectare business, industry, aviation, education, and tourism hub and a place that became our SUV playground for a few days.

We stayed at the Midori Hotel and Casino (no gambling was undertaken honest), a huge hotel with really, really hospitable staff – I haven’t said ‘good morning’ so much in my life. Anyway, one sleepless night later, it was time to get with the program.

As is usual on these types of trips, firstly we all gathered in a briefing room for what I assumed would be technical breakdown of the four SUV’s we’d be driving, however I was wrong. Much to the contrary in fact. The opening gambit was basically ‘there will be no Torque talk or horsepower prattle’ no, this was all about the Experience, the Ford SUV Experience. We would be driving along volcanic fallout, shopping, being massaged and even doing a spot of fishing – this was definitely not your usual car launch. This was a showcase event designed to highlight ‘everyday’ living with a Ford SUV (yeah I fish and I’m massaged on a daily basis).

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Split into groups, we started with the Lahar riverbed trek and  were handed the keys to the Ford Everest, their 7 seater large family sized SUV – wait what? We were going to be driving on Volcanic Ash and across flowing rivers in a people mover? Thankfully I have driven the Everest before and am quite aware of its excellent capabilities. Navigating the big left hand drive SUV through the narrow streets was an exercise in itself but it just added to the anticipation of the Lahar. Once we hit the soft ash it was a 9km trek at 30-40kph through quite deep water and ‘moon-like’ terrain – and it was a blast. With water splashing up and engulfing the windscreen and the fear of sinking into the ground we yeehaa’d all the way. The Everest took it all in its stride, 800mm water wading, 225mm ground clearance and terrain shift at the turn of a dial – the big 4×4 was 10 out of 10.

After stopping for lunch in an authentic Filipino restaurant (Binulo) to savour the food and our excellent driving skills we headed back to the hotel (base) for a vehicle and scenery change.

Next was the EcoSport and an urban discovery. The drive took us over the Mega Dyke (insert joke here) essentially a wall that protects the city from Mt Pinatubo and all that it throws out, to a lantern shop where they showed us the traditional Xmas decorations before we got chance to make our own. Unfortunately, my resulting lantern would be better placed on the tree of the Grinch, it wouldn’t steal Christmas but more give any child Xmas nightmares – ‘scar young children for life’ could be a better way to call it. I magnanimously chose to leave it there. We then moved on to the narrow backstreets of Pampanga and the Nepo market to do a bit of haggling and get a Pasalubong (the Filipino tradition of travellers buying a gift from their destination for loved ones at home) But not before stopping at Susie’s Cuisine to create our own ‘Halo-halo’ a shaved ice and condensed milk drink so sweet you can hear your teeth yell out in surrender. The plucky little Ecosport SUV adapted well to its surroundings. It felt solid on top of the dyke (stop it) and nimble around the congested streets, 200mm ground clearance to cover potholes and plenty of adaptable boot space too.

Dinner that night was a BBQ on the rooftop of the hotel, soo much food! Next day, it was up early for breakfast (which felt late; as due to the time difference I had been awake since 3am)

Lifestyle journey number three, this time it was behind the wheel of the Kuga (which for NZ will soon have a facelift and a name change to Escape). Time to leave the city and Escape to the country.  With the hotel in the mid sized SUV’s mirror we headed out on the provincial roads again and all the heavy traffic that comes with it. We met up with Jeepneys (elongated and blinged up coaches that are personalised to the hilt with luxury car marque badges and even superhero paintwork) and trikes (or motorbikes with sidecars). The driving is frantic with seemingly no road rules (apart from DO NOT STOP) but it somehow works, it flows despite itself. Again, Ford had the SUV to suit the terrain. The (let’s call it) Escape, was big enough to muscle its way through – without being cumbersome – and was notably roomy inside, great for any gear that we would have needed for the trip. The tailgate is foot activated and more tech than you can shake a stick at. Our destination was The Lakeshore, a modern looking gated housing area that surrounded a lake (allegedly) filled with Milkfish, Carp and large-mouth bass. I say allegedly, because I caught nothing – maybe I do need to go fishing more often. We also had the opportunity to ride bikes or go kayaking but it was hot so I went with cold (non-alcoholic) drinks and lunch – more food.

The return trip to the hotel was a little more civil, motorway roads and a bit of speed.

Last but not least, the Explorer – which turned out to be a bit of a tease as we will not be getting this SUV here in NZ (manufactured in left hand drive only). It’s a bit of a looker, comfortable and very swish inside – but like I said, we’re not getting it here so enough said.

First stop was a memorial shrine for a moment of reflection before taking the winding Filipino roads out to the Green Canyon Eco-Art resort for a soothing massage, a drive around the estate and a bite to eat. The Explorer felt great on the open road and once there wandered slowly around the resorts muddy exotic undergrowth without a care in the world. Maybe it was the SUV’s softer suspension or the way it delivers its V6 power (or maybe it was because I had just finished having a shoulder and neck rub) whatever the reason, it was a very comfortable and relaxing adventure.

Back to the hotel for a quick freshen up before heading out to dinner, this time it was at the Matam-Ih (which means delicious) for some more authentic local nosh. The tiger skinned wearing singers was a bit unusual and the food was ‘well done’ but still well worth doing – I must admit to being quite knackered at that point though.

The next morning it was time to head home which meant heading back to the airport. With memories of the 6 hour drive still in our minds we opted to leave as early as we could – little did we know we had demon local driver behind the wheel and he was definitely on a mission. The trip took us a shade over 2! With plenty of time to spare, I can happily report that Manila duty free shopping is rubbish and Seattle’s best coffee is a VERY misleading moniker.

The Ford SUV Experience was excellent. What it (purposely) lacked in technical data, it more than made up for in ‘real life usability’ experience – Think a life in academia vs a mammoth all seeing, all doing OE.

And one last thing – In the golden age of cinema; the ‘King of Hollywood’ was American actor Clark Gable. He was adaptive and versatile, dashing and charismatic; in short he gave the people what they wanted. Much like the line-up of Fords at the SUV experience – which is why I called this piece Clark Stable!

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