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Old 02-24-2003, 21:57   #1 (permalink)
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Ford Set to Build More Flex Into Lineup

February 24, 2003
Motor Trend
(C) 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


The plans aren't set in stone, but here's what appears to be in the very near future for Ford Motor Co.

The Torrence Avenue plant in Chicago will stop building the midsize Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable and switch to the midsize Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans as well as the Ford Freestyle sedan/sport-ute crossover for the '05 model year.

Ford's Atlanta plant will continue to build Taurus and Sable until production of the new Torrence Avenue vehicles is up to capacity. Then Atlanta will drop the Taurus and Sable and add a new sedan that will be shared by Ford and Mercury for the '06 model year.

"We're working on products below Taurus/Sable that are more C/D size, though I won't say that they are going to be built in Atlanta," Jim Padilla, president of Ford's North American automotive operations, told us when he stopped in town to help unveil the Montego at the Chicago Auto Show.

In the European vernacular auto executives sometimes slip into, C refers to a Focus-size vehicle, C/D to a Ford Mondeo-size vehicle (the former Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique) and D to a Taurus/Sable-size vehicle.

"There's room for a vehicle between the Focus and the Five Hundred (D size), and we intend to fill it. I'm not going to say if it will be built in Atlanta, but wherever it's built, it will be a flex plant like Chicago," Padilla said.

He also wouldn't say whether the new C/D car would come off a platform from Ford or Mazda, its Japanese partner.

Flex plant refers to the fact that three vehicles will be built here, a trio of front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive units derived from one platform.

With different body panels and tweaks to engines and suspensions, one platform provides three vehicles with different character and performance traits. The days when the only difference between the Ford and Mercury was that one had a vertical grille, the other a horizontal grille, are long gone.

The only advantage to producing Taurus at two plants is that it gave Ford about 400,000 vehicles annually, enough units to compete against Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for the title of best-selling car in the industry.

Of course, with only one plant producing Taurus, it will stop chasing the title.

Padilla insists that while Ford won't have enough volume from one car to compete at the 400,000-unit level, it still intends to compete against those Japanese sedans.

In other words, Ford still intends to sell 400,000 sedans, just not 400,000 carrying the same nameplate because it's not economical to do so, Padilla said.

So the battle will be fought with 100,000, 125,000 or 150,000 sales from a variety of cars - whatever it takes, in other words, to reach that 400,000.

"The Five Hundred and Montego are only one piece of our strategy to take on those sedans," Padilla said. "We'll take them on with a new C/D car as well as with others," he said without elaborating. "We aren't going to rely on any one single product to fill one plant, and we certainly aren't going to rely on any one single product to fill two plants."

Steve Lyons, president of Ford division, said, "It's difficult to sell 200,000 or 300,000 of any one vehicle. With Taurus we had to push 200,000 units from one plant and 200,000 from the other."

And when sales were soft, it meant a choice between halting production and idling workers to balance production with demand or offering costly incentives to entice buyers into showrooms to keep the factory open.

"With Five Hundred, Montego and Freestyle, we'll have lots of 125,000-unit cars in the plant," Lyons said.

"With three different models built in Chicago, we can react quickly to any changes in demand because we can build from zero to 100 percent of whichever model is hot at the time and not only meet demand, but minimize incentives," he added.

"With derivatives in the same plant, you have a huge advantage. Lots of us have asked how we could have missed doing this before. It takes a huge investment to build a variety of derivatives off one platform, but actually it ends up saving you money by avoiding the cost of having to shut down a plant and lay off workers when the one model you are building isn't selling," Lyons said.

Insiders, by the way, say the C/D car Padilla referred to will be built in Atlanta and offered in Ford and Mercury versions, though one source suggested, "There possibly could be more."

Perhaps a hint that like the Ford Mustang and Mazda6 to be built at Ford's Flat Rock plant in Michigan for the '05 model year, Atlanta could build a Mazda as well?

Stay tuned.
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