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South America:Ford pins Brazil hopes on new pint-sized SUV

Automaker bets car's style, cost turn profit

By Alan Clendenning / Associated Press
Paulo Santos / Associated Press

CAMACARI, Brazil -- Just beyond the palm trees lining Avenida Henry Ford, nearly 5,000 Brazilian workers at a new plant assemble one pint-sized SUV after another.

The gleaming Ford EcoSports rolling out of the $1.9 billion factory in northeastern Brazil are tiny by U.S. standards and don't even come with a four-wheel drive option yet.

But the world's No. 2 automaker is betting the vehicle's spunky looks, high driving profile and $13,800 average sticker price will help stem five consecutive years of losses for Ford's South American division.

The continent's notoriously rough roads are tailor-made for SUVs. Coastal and interior dirt roads are full of ruts and potholes. Axle-breaking bumps and dips are common on the paved streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city.

But the SUV craze never hit South America because most people can't afford larger U.S.-style models that frequently fetch $34,500 or more. That's about the same price as a decent middle-class home in most parts of Brazil, by far the largest car market in South America.

Brazilians and their South American neighbors usually buy small cars and pickup trucks.

Ford is gambling that it can persuade buyers of cars like Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics to consider the EcoSport because it goes for roughly the same price.

"SUVs are beyond the means of most Brazilians, but Ford is offering one at an affordable price," said Joao Leite, owner of the Autoinforme Web site focusing on Brazil's auto industry. "Ford had to do something to ensure their future here, and the EcoSport was a nice surprise."

The company, which ranks fourth in Brazilian auto sales, needs all the help it can get. Ford hasn't posted a profit for its South American division since 1997.

The division's losses peaked at $776 million in 2001 but dropped to $295 million last year. The unit registered $31 million in losses for the first quarter of 2003, down 64 percent from the same period last year.

Ford said the figures show it is turning the corner toward profitability in South America, in part with lower production costs at the Camacari plant 930 miles northeast of Sao Paulo.

Before launching the EcoSport in April, the company last year introduced the subcompact Fiesta designed in Europe. Fiesta sales were largely responsible for boosting the company's Brazilian market share from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 9.9 percent in 2002.

Ford's new vehicle line "contributes revenue, profitability and share growth and brings new customers," said Richard Canny, president of the company's South American unit. "It's really helping rejuvenate the Ford brand."

Some experts are skeptical, saying Ford has been losing money for so long on the continent that there's no cause for optimism until the South American division reports consistent profits.

Ford's performance "raises questions about whether they ought to be in Latin America," said David Healy, an analyst at Burnham Securities in New York. He said it's still unclear whether the new vehicles can help Ford reverse the situation.

(Photo)Israel Salgado, 54, right, looks at a Ford EcoSport in a Sao Paulo, Brazil showroom. The SUV is aimed at the continent's rough dirt and paved roads.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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