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Old 08-25-2003, 06:59   #1 (permalink)
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U.S.A.:Ford U.S. likely won't get new global compact car platform for Focus

By MARK RECHTIN AND AMY WILSON | Automotive News

In a reversal of course, Ford Motor Co. will not use the new global C1 compact car platform for the North American Focus until at least 2007. While the rest of the world will get a redesigned C1-based Focus next year, North America may never get the vehicle, executives have confirmed.

Ford executives had said the North American Focus would shift to the C1 platform, which will accommodate the European Focus and several Ford, Mazda and Volvo models. Based on a standard vehicle cycle of four or five years, that shift could have come next year or in 2005.

The decision means the American-market Focus, which is based on the C170 platform, will be eight years old in a hyper-competitive segment where five-year cycles are the norm and four years is not unheard of. Cost appears to be a major reason for the decision.

Chris Theodore, Ford's vice president of advanced product creation, said Ford North America still needs to pay for the development costs of the current Focus before it can look to adopt the new platform.

"We have to amortize and make money on our original investment," Theodore says.

But Theodore denies that the decision was a red flag signaling a change in Ford's platform-sharing strategy.

"Ford is not backing away from globalization of its platforms. This is just a timing issue. We will continue to march toward platform consolidation. We will see unique models coming from those platforms," Theodore says.

But a decision to switch to C1 for North America has not been made, he says.

"C1 is the obvious candidate, but it is not the only one. We don't want to make our decision too soon," Theodore says. Part of the decision also involves the timing and cadence of Ford's product introductions.

The Europe-market Focus has run a full five-year cycle and is due for a redesign, while the North American market did not get its version of the Focus until the 2000 model year.

"It was never an option to short-cycle the C170 (in America)," says Nick Scheele, Ford Motor president. "We are sticking with the C170, which is doing quite well. Why change it?"

But Ford has been trumpeting the benefits it would gain by sharing engineering and supplier resources in developing the C1 platform with Mazda and Volvo.

More than a dozen vehicles are slated to be derived from the C1 platform, from Ford Focus convertibles to Mazda3 hatchbacks to Volvo S40 sedans to Land Rover Freelander sport wagons.

The first vehicle off the new platform, the five-seat Focus C-Max mini-minivan, goes on sale in Europe next month.

The other European Focus variants will be produced in April.

The Mazda Protege was redesigned for the 1999 model year and is on schedule to be replaced in December by the Mazda3. Volvo's S40 and V40 - co-developed with Mitsubishi - were introduced in America in fall 1999 and will be replaced in the spring.

But the Volvos had been on sale before that in Europe and were due for a redesign.

In the meantime, Ford North America will soldier on using the old C170 platform, although some interim changes will be made. Ford just launched a PZEV-emissions version of the Focus in the spring, with a new 2.3-liter inline-four engine. A re-engineered and restyled Focus will debut in April for the 2005 model year. A performance version of the sedan will be added to the lineup for 2005 as well.

It may be that the new C1 platform priced itself out of North America's budget car segment.

In Europe, Focus is in a segment with vehicles that hold a price premium, and people value its performance-in-a-small-package character. But in North America, the compact segment is much more price sensitive. Chevrolet, for instance, has offered rebates of $4,000 on the Cavalier, while Ford has kept Focus rebates to about $2,000. Focus sales through July are flat compared with last year.

"The Focus here is different than in Europe," Scheele says. "In Europe, it is about family, handling and performance. In America, it's an entry-level vehicle. So what I would do for one product, I might not do for another. They need to reflect a different marketplace."

Using a platform with higher variable costs would require a higher vehicle price to break even and could compromise efforts to reach volume goals for the Focus, one Ford insider says. That could hinder Ford's ability to meet corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards as because the Focus is a big contributor to the automaker's CAFE.

Ford has battled quality problems with the Focus. The car generally received positive reviews for ride, handling and design upon its introduction. But the North American version has been plagued with quality problems that put a black eye on the nameplate.

In contrast, the Europe-market Focus has been touted for its high quality in both J.D. Power ratings and in a German equivalent of Consumer Reports. One Ford source says the company doesn't have the resources for another major product introduction and worried that a Focus platform change could trigger another round of costly recalls.

Ford conducted 10 U.S. recalls of the 2000 Focus, six recalls of the 2001 Focus and one recall of the 2002 Focus SVT.

In September 2002, Ford began offering an extended five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. It also increased advertising on the 2003 model to an estimated $100 million, even more than Ford spent to introduce the vehicle.

Ford officials boast that the Focus has been free of recalls for nearly two years, and that warranty repairs for the 2003 model have improved by 23 percent over the 2002 model.
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