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Mercury Marauder sales fall short of goals

By Justin Hyde

DETROIT, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The Mercury Marauder, Ford Motor Co.'s <F.N> attempt to spice up its Mercury brand with a nostalgic muscle car, has not lived up to expectations for sales so far.

After setting an annual target of 18,000 vehicles, Mercury sold 2,910 of the rear-wheel-drive sedans to customers between July and December last year, according to Mercury officials. Mercury is now offering a $3,000 rebate or zero-percent financing on the Marauder, the same incentives it offers for the aging Mercury Grand Marquis sedan it is based on.

Mercury executives say that while sales of the full-size cars may not have hit original estimates, the Marauder has lured younger buyers into Lincoln-Mercury showrooms. Philip Smoker, the Marauder's brand manager, said the average age of the car's buyers was 51, versus 69 for the 2003 version of the Grand Marquis.

"I think the Marauder has been and is successful because it's a niche product. It's this enthusiast niche that is buying this particular vehicle," Smoker said. "When we look at the demographics of Marauder buyer, it's right in line with where we have targeted the product."

But industry experts say the Marauder, named for a Mercury muscle car from the late 1960s, hasn't sold because it doesn't have enough power or sophistication for its price, and too many customers see it as just another Grand Marquis.

"While in concept it's a good idea, in execution the car is woefully short of anything they have any right to promote as a serious enthusiasts' car," said Jim Wangers, an auto industry con******t.

The Marauder was supposed to herald a renaissance at Mercury, the overlooked middle child of Ford's domestic brand lineup. Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford Jr. has committed to reviving Mercury, and the unit will unveil four new vehicles over the next few years.

In addition to a minivan dubbed Monterey coming later this year, Ford executives have also pledged Mercury variants of the Ford Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle wagon due out in 2004, as well as a Mercury version of the Ford Escape sport utility vehicle.

Early reviews of the $34,000 Marauder were mostly positive, although a few took note that its 305-horsepower V-8 engine and automatic transmission combined with its weight of more than two tons gave it a zero-to-60 mph time of about 7.5 seconds, not much better than some V-6-powered family sedans.

The Marauder was also offered only in black until recently, a move that likely limited its popularity in warmer parts of the United States where black is an unpopular color for vehicles. Smoker said Mercury had just started offering dark blue Marauders and would offer three new colors this year.

Including last year's sales, Smoker said Mercury hoped to move about 12,000 Marauders through the end of the model year. While no engine upgrades are planned, Smoker said new options for the Marauder, including traction control and a moonroof, would help boost sales.

"The success I see is that it's very successful in bringing new customers into the showroom," Smoker said. "I couldn't be happier."

Art Spinella, an industry sales analyst with CNW Marketing Research, said there was demand for a full-size, rear-wheel-drive performance car, but that the Marauder was not the right answer.

"It captures the name of what the original product was, but it doesn't capture the essence," Spinella said. "This is just a half-hearted attempt at nostalgia. They would have been much better off doing it the right way."
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