Ford Motor Co. has taken steps over the last few years to avoid government intervention: cutting costs, focusing on its core brands, and introducing new vehicles and advanced features.
"Ford is building the best stuff it's ever made in terms of quality rankings and critical reviews," said Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst at IHS Global Insight. "The vehicles are sufficiently improved and people are starting to realize that."
While Ford tries to go it alone, federal officials are questioning every penny spent by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, which are both subsisting on government loans.
On Friday, the Treasury Department said it loaned $2 billion to GM, bringing the automaker's total to $15.4 billion. Chrysler has borrowed $4 billion and could get $500 million more so it can keep running while it restructures.
But Ford, under the leadership of former Boeing Corp. CEO Alan Mulally, mortgaged all of the automaker's assets
- including the trademark blue logo - a few years ago, when loans were easier to get from the private sector.
As of March 31, Ford had $21.3 billion in cash to help it survive the worst market for U.S. auto sales in 27 years.
The company said Friday it had spent just $3.7 billion of its cash during the first three months of this year, far less than the $7.2 billion it burned in the fourth quarter of 2008. Investors sent Ford's shares up 11 percent.
"I think the important comparison for us is 'Are we improving versus the fourth quarter?'" said Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth. "Because the fourth quarter, things were really dreadful.
He said cost cuts and better pricing for its vehicles helped the company narrow its losses from $5.9 billion in the fourth quarter, and he expects continued improvement for the remainder of the year.
Ford said it was able to charge more for its vehicles, which are now coming loaded with features such as electronic blind-spot detection and technology that links drivers' cell phones and MP3 players to a voice-activated command center.
Chrysler, on the other hand, spent more on sales incentives than any other automaker, averaging about $5,000 per vehicle in March, according to Edmunds.com.
With a government-imposed deadline for massive restructuring less than a week away, Chrysler and federal officials held out hope that they could keep the automaker out of bankruptcy court, according to two people briefed on the talks.
Chrysler and the Treasury Department are preparing paperwork for bankruptcy filings
- one as a reorganization in Chapter 11 with government funding and the other as a liquidation if no government money is available, both people said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the fast-moving negotiations are private.
Chrysler has until Thursday to work out a joint venture with Italian automaker Fiat SpA. GM has until June 1 to make dramatic cuts.
Ford jumped ahead of both competitors in February with a new labor agreement that saved $300 million in the first quarter. A debt-for-equity swap shed $10 billion in debt.
Ford's overall work force in North America shrank 41 percent since December 2006, when it employed 122,400 salaried and hourly workers and began restructuring.
Ford wants to trim its work force even more. Of the 72,300 employees it had in March, 51,000 were union workers who have until May 22 to accept or reject a buyout.
"We started on this transformation of Ford two to three years ago," Mulally said last week in an interview with The Associated Press. "We were very clear with the government that we believed we had sufficient liquidity to make it through this, and we were not asking them for money."