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Old 10-15-2003, 07:52   #1 (permalink)
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U.K.:Rivals benefit as Ford Europe's sales fall

Financial Times
By James Mackintosh in London

Sales at the troubled European arm of Ford, the US carmaker, dropped 5.1 per cent in September despite a strong month for the automobile market as special deals from rivals attracted customers back to showrooms.

Ford was the worst performing of all manufacturers, according to sales figures released on Tuesday, adding to the problems facing the loss-making division.

The company - which announces third-quarter results on Wednesday - is now examining whether to increase special deals in order to halt the slide in sales, a move which would further undermine the European operation's attempt to return to profit by the end of the year.

Ford's European turnround, hailed as a model for the group, went off the rails earlier this year when new cars and improved quality did not attract as many buyers as expected.

A new chief executive has been appointed, and two weeks ago he took the axe to plans to upgrade a factory in Belgium, eliminating 3,000 jobs in the process. Another 2,200 jobs will go in the UK and Germany through early retirement.

However, the US operations are doing better than previously thought. Successful cost-cutting and sales of more expensive vehicles have led analysts to forecast earnings for the third quarter higher than the company's guidance. The consensus of Wall Street forecasts, according to Bloomberg, is a loss of 12 cents per share, against Ford's own prediction of 15 cents.

Ford blamed the weak European sales performance on the new Opel Astra from General Motors and Volkswagen's new Golf eating into sales of its flagship Focus model.

In the UK in September, the Focus lost its best-seller status to the Astra for the first time in 40 months.

Niel Golightly, a Ford spokesman, said its new C-Max people carrier, meant to bolster sales until a modernised Focus arrives late next year, had been delayed because of the low level of water in the river next to its plant in Saarlouis, Germany.

"We have had a real problem getting C-Max out of Saarlouis because we normally use barges and the Rhine is too low. I know it sounds like a classic 'dog ate my homework' excuse," he said. He added that early October sales looked better than September.

The September sales figures showed the importance of new models as Renault, the French carmaker which has just finished updating its mid-sized car range, showed a 15.9 per cent leap in sales. Rival PSA Peugeot CitroŽn, which spaces out its model launches, has been suffering and its September sales grew just 0.6 per cent, against a market up 4.4 per cent.

Germany's DaimlerChrysler also did well, with sales up 9.3 per cent at its Mercedes, Smart and Chrysler brands.
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