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Old 08-30-2004, 07:31   #1 (permalink)
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US:Ford aiming upcoming Freestyle sport wagon at SUV defectors


Ford aiming upcoming Freestyle sport wagon at SUV defectors

RICK KRANZ | Automotive News

CHICAGO - Ford Motor Co. finally has a mid-sized vehicle to compete in the booming sport wagon segment. The 2005 Ford Freestyle goes on sale next month.

The Freestyle's primary mission is to target SUV owners who might leave Ford because they're tired of a truck-based vehicle.

"We have a big Explorer base, but as the crossover market evolved, we had defections from the Explorer to crossover vehicles," said Ray Nicosia, vehicle engineering manager, at a press event here.

Sport wagon sales continue to escalate. In 2003, 1,486,669 sport wagons were sold in the United States, a 40.4 percent increase from 2002.

Sport wagons are usually unibody vehicles with carlike ride, handling and step-in height. The vehicles have SUV-like styling. All-wheel drive is available, sometimes as an option.

The Lexus RX 330, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Buick Rendezvous and Acura MDX are popular models.

Last year, the only sport wagon offered by Ford division was the compact Escape, which accounted for 167,678 units.

Ford predicts 100,000 annual Freestyle sales in the United States when full production is reached.

Listening to customers

"We talked to our Explorer customers," Nicosia said. "What we learned is (many) didn't use the (Explorer's) ground height. They didn't use the heavy towing capacity. Often it was a fuel economy (complaint), or 'I'm paying extra for an Explorer and I'm not using its capabilities.' "

The entry-level Freestyle SE has a $25,595 sticker price, including $590 destination; awd is a $1,700 option. By comparison, the 2004 four-wheel-drive Explorer XLS stickers at $29,710, including $645 destination. Pricing for the 2005 Explorer has not been announced.

While Explorer owners favored the style and interior flexibility of their SUV, "those people wanted a sedanlike ride. They wanted easier ingress and egress into the vehicle," Nicosia said.

The Freestyle's seating position is 5.5 inches lower than the Explorer's.

The Volvo S80 was benchmarked for ride and handling.

Tuning out

"We tuned out the sport-utility feeling that you get normally with the higher center of gravity," Nicosia said.

The mid-sized Freestyle was developed on Volvo's P2 front-wheel-drive architecture. Ford's version, called D3, is shared by the 2005 Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans.

Advertising will position the Freestyle as the bridge between cars and SUVs, said Amy Marentic, Freestyle and Five Hundred marketing manager.

Said Marentic: "You'll see themes like, it gives you the things you love in your car, like 27 mpg on the highway, and things you need in your SUV, like the ability to carry seven people and their things."
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