That’s SHO Business

Cristina Rodriguez gets a firm handle on the feel of Ford’s powerful full-size sedan
Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Cristina Rodriguez may have gotten the engineering gene from her father, but the automotive specialty came from her mother, a homemaker back in suburban San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was utterly unafraid of cars.

Rodriguez’s father was a chemical engineer for Bacardi, making rum. It was her mother, however, who once drove a wounded MG home with the hood up, head out the window, two kids in the back and Cristina riding shotgun, pulling the accelerator cable at her mother’s direction. Rodriguez can’t quite draw a direct line between that day and her job as a vehicle dynamics development engineer for Ford Motor Co., but maybe it helped.

“I’ve always been interested in how machines work,” she said, shortly before the showroom debut of her latest project, the 2010 Taurus SHO, the high-performance full-size sedan that Ford hopes will help lead the company back to dominance of that market sector. “I never wanted to be the sort of person who stares at a computer all day.”

Rodriguez does nothing of the sort. As one of the developers of the Taurus suspension, her job has a strong hands-on component. She and her colleagues are out on Ford test tracks almost daily, judging the feel of the ride, steering, and handling — components that can be assessed only subjectively.

Ride, steering, and handling are three elements that go into what engineers call dynamics, and Rodriguez compares herself to a cook, tinkering with all the ingredients that make the dish. Shocks, stability bars, springs, bushings: This has been her recipe for the years this Taurus has been in development.

It’s not a traditional career for a woman. Rodriguez is one of a handful of female vehicle-dynamics specialists, and an even tinier group working on the SHO project, which aims to produce a muscle car in a dad-car shell, 365 horsepower, twin turbo, all-wheel drive, lots of macho bells and whistles, but with a luxe interior that will soothe the battered corporate warrior on the commute.

“In engineering school, you learn to be in the minority,” Rodriguez says. (Women are still underrepresented there.) “But once you show you are capable, you’re accepted, and your work has value.”

In a marketplace where so many women are primary car buyers, and with successful women wanting fast, sexy rides like their colleagues, Rodriguez brings something else to the team: “What women feel is different,” she says. “We’re smaller in stature, and we interact with it differently.” A voice for that on the design team is valued.

Rodriguez is accustomed to being in the minority in several ways. She came to the United States for college at 18 and never really returned to Puerto Rico, moving from Georgia Tech to the University of Michigan to Dearborn.

Back home, her family distinguished itself for its willingness to take risks. Her parents came to Puerto Rico from Cuba after the revolution, and two uncles and a grandfather were Olympic basketball players. Rodriguez herself is an athlete in more ways than one; she played college tennis and got into running and triathlon competition via an unusual path: She was training for a benefit for cancer patients when a persistent cough took her to the doctor. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Today, she competes with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program.

“It was the first thing I did when I got better,” she says.

For now, though, her focus is on the Taurus. She invites her visitor to see the car run through its paces on the Ford test track in Dearborn. (“I do like to drive fast,” Rodriguez says.) The proving ground offers high- and slow-speed courses, and at least a short stretch of all the pavement conditions a driver is apt to experience, from frost heaves to one punisher called “pitch & jounce.”

The car, like its driver, trots capably over all of it, with a precise mix of American road-boat comfort and tight European adhesion. Rodriguez isn’t given to gushing, but allows that this car is special to her, saying, “I’m going to buy one of these.”