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Old 03-22-2002, 06:46   #1 (permalink)
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Chevy poses threat to Ford Trucks ????

Clash of the Titans: Chevrolet poses threat to Ford's truck crown


By RICK KRANZ
Automotive News

Chevrolet could accomplish a feat this year it hasn't repeated since 1986: Beat Ford Division in sales.

Chevrolet's resurgence can be summed up in one word: trucks.

The Silverado is nipping at the F-series' heels. The TrailBlazer and Blazer, when combined, outsold the Explorer in February. And the Chevrolet Avalanche, for which Ford has no answer, is a hot seller.

Chevrolet edged Ford by a mere 328 cars and light trucks during January and February combined. It was the first time Chevrolet has been the nation's best-selling make in those two months since 1990, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Whether Chevrolet can hold the lead for the year is uncertain. Both divisions are phasing out nameplates and adding and redesigning vehicles. How fast and problem-free their ramp-ups occur might determine the winner. And a lot depends on incentives and how desperately the archrivals want the sales crown.

At stake are more than bragging rights. The companies can tout the No. 1 status in advertisements. And the crown would add momentum to General Motors' comeback - or boost financially ailing Ford Motor Co.

Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power & Associates, said the race could come down to one vehicle: the redesigned 2003 Ford Expedition. Ford sold 178,045 Expeditions in 2001.

"We're not expecting a significant increase in sales for that product. But that ramp-up, as far as Ford goes, is probably more crucial than the Chevy ramp-ups" because Ford has fumbled the launches of sport-utilities, Schuster said.

Ford needs a quick, problem-free launch for the Expedition and other vehicles this year to maintain its sales momentum, he said.

Also on Ford's launch schedule this year is the re-engineered 2003 Crown Victoria and the mildly restyled 2003 Ranger. And while Ford's sales numbers will be helped by a full year of production for the popular Explorer and the Thunderbird, the automaker is phasing out the Escort sedan, a car that last year accounted for approximately 46,000 units.

In addition, Ford is wrestling with declining sales for the Focus, Taurus and its bread and butter, the F-series pickup, all of which are long in the tooth.

Ford vows to fight for the title.

"It is obvious that Ford wants to maintain their leadership position," said dealer Dick Heaton, owner of Conway Heaton Inc. in Bardstown, Ky. "It is rare that we have large incentives on best-selling vehicles such as F-series light-duty and SuperCrew. That tells me that Ford is serious."

In the Cincinnati region, Ford is offering a $2,500 incentive or 0 percent financing on light-duty F-series; $2,000 or 0 percent financing on the Ford Ranger; and $1,000 or 0 percent on the SuperCrew through April 1, Heaton said.

"The Ford brand has been the No. 1 brand in America for 15 years and we expect it to be for 16 years," said Susan Krusel, Ford spokeswoman.

"We've got the availability of the product and we've got the right marketing and incentive support to help drive sales," Krusel said.

The truck side is where Chevrolet is expected to make gains this year.

"Chevrolet has newer product, plain and simple" that is giving the automaker momentum, said Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc. The sales race with Ford "will be closer than a lot of people think."

The F series has remained basically unchanged since it was redesigned for the 1997 model year. A redesign is planned for the 2004 model year.

The Silverado was redesigned for the 1999 model year. For 2003, the Silverado will receive a new front-end treatment, a restyled interior, airbag upgrades, and multiplexing, an electrical architecture that greatly reduces the amount of wires, splices and connectors. The Tahoe and Suburban also receive the electrical and airbag upgrades. Chevrolet also will get a full sales year from the hot-selling Avalanche, introduced last spring, and the TrailBlazer.

This spring, Chevrolet will introduce the TrailBlazer EXT, which seats seven. In the fall, the re-engineered Express full-sized van will bow, featuring all-wheel drive and doors on the driver's side.

Chevrolet General Manager Kurt Ritter hesitates to celebrate February's sales victory.

"There are a lot of ifs. There is a lot of ground to be covered between now and the end of the year," he said. "But honestly, it is not our goal to eke out a sales victory in the last month, in the last day. We really want something that is more sustainable and more long term."

Incentives, not new products, may determine the winner. And that's where GM may have the edge. Ford is laboring to erase huge financial losses in 2001.

Ford "basically has to match what the other guy is doing," said Hall. "The difference is GM is not in a recovery mode, so it is not constrained the way Ford is."

Added Schuster: Ford is "hanging in there right now with GM from an incentive standpoint. But at some point, when you are looking to cut costs and increase profitability, sometimes you will let the volume race or the market share race go for the time being. GM did that in the past."

So who will be on top at year end?

Said Schuster: "I think it is too close to call. I think this may go to a photo finish."
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