But the addition of safety features to the 2010 model -- scheduled to roll off the assembly line this summer -- hints that the St. Paul pickup plant won't close early.
In a hopeful sign for the St. Paul Ford plant among plummeting vehicle sales, Ford Motor Co. is expected to announce today that it will add two safety features to the 2010 Ford Ranger -- side air bags and an electronic stability control system.
That's a likely signal that the plant, slated to close in 2011, won't be shut early.
But with recent abysmal sales, St. Paul workers, just off a six-week furlough, will be forced to sit out next week and a week in March as the manufacturer pares inventory.
Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said the newly equipped 2010 Rangers will begin to roll off the assembly line this summer.
Ford had intended to close the St. Paul plant this year, but last July, Ford said it would be open through 2011.
The Ranger will be one of two small pickups to offer both safety features as standard equipment, Sherwood said. The other truck is the Toyota Tacoma.
"Electronic stability control is especially important in pickup trucks because they have a higher propensity to be involved in rollover crashes," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Ford's stability control is designed to prevent both skidding and rollovers.
By the 2010 model year, manufacturers have agreed to provide head protection when a vehicle is hit from the side by installing side air bags, Rader said. A new federal rule will require electronic stability control be in new vehicles by the 2012 model year.
Sherwood did not release a price for the new Ranger.
As the economy deteriorated late last year, Ford stopped truck production in St. Paul for a six-week holiday break instead of the normal two weeks.
Roger Terveen, president of United Auto Workers Local 879 at the St. Paul plant, said employees reported back to work Jan. 12, but now they are looking at two more weeks of temporary layoffs because of weak truck sales.
Ford sales dropped 39.5 percent in January, with Ranger sales plummeting by 49.3 percent.
Except for a few skilled trade workers, most UAW employees won't be reporting for work at the Highland Park plant, he said.
Terveen said some members have asked how safe their jobs are and how many weekly furloughs might occur.
"I don't have a crystal ball," he said. "Sales determine more than anything else the hours that workers get to work."
Angie Kozleski, a Ford spokeswoman, said, "We continue to watch market demand very closely and will align our production capacity with that demand."
Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709