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Old 01-24-2005, 08:39   #1 (permalink)
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US:Ford may pull the plug on Freestar minivan


The Ford Fairlane concept could be one of three vehicles replacing the Freestar minivan.

Ford may pull the plug on Freestar minivan; Fairlane people mover concept may signal new direction

AMY WILSON | Automotive News

DETROIT -- After 20 years of stumbles, Ford Motor Co. is poised to give up on the minivan.

With Ford a perennial also-ran in the minivan segment, company executives seem ready to cut their losses and move to a selection of family haulers. The Fairlane concept, exhibited at the 2005 Detroit auto show, is Ford's latest take on a mainstream people mover.

With Land Rover styling cues and a wide expanse of glass, Fairlane departs significantly from the one-box minivan of the past. Based on a modified Mazda6 platform, it is largely ready for production. Ford product executives have said the next-generation minivan would migrate to the Mazda6 platform.

"We're looking for the next thing, and it might be the Fairlane," Ford Division President Steve Lyons says. "If we added something like Fairlane, I think we're done. It would be too crowded to try to fit a traditional minivan in there."

Blend No. 3

Though not approved, Fairlane would be the third Ford product blending attributes of minivans, SUVs and cars. The Freestyle sport wagon was introduced last fall. Another Mazda6-derived sport wagon, internally called the Ford Edge, is slated to debut in 2006.

More nameplates with smaller volumes may work better than trying to cover the market with one minivan, executives say. The Freestar is struggling to sustain 100,000 units of annual volume.

Fairlane could take the "diaper" stigma away from conventional minivan buyers by giving them an upscale ride, Ford design chief J Mays says.

But it must be affordable for mass market Ford Division customers. Fairlane is outfitted with a canvas top likened to a polo helmet. Video at the auto show depicted it as the choice of an old-money crowd at play in the Hamptons.

"Our people don't know too much about polo," Lyons says. "Football? OK, we're into that. NASCAR. So is this, in fact, a Ford? There are elements that could very well be. But if that vehicle is $45,000, I'm not interested."

A $25,000 price is more realistic, he says.

Mays says the Fairlane's upscale styling doesn't require a high price tag. "It just doesn't cost any more to bend the sheet metal that way," he said.

Unlike at the Chrysler group, where minivans are a crucial profit center, Ford may be able to pull the switch. "We're not making any money at it in any big way," Lyons says.

But Ford's freedom to exit the segment points out how it bungled its minivan efforts.

Minivan woes

In 1976, Ford passed on the minivan concept pitched by executive Hal Sperlich. Sperlich went to Chrysler, which popularized the segment in 1983.

Ford countered with the trucklike, rear-drive Aerostar. Ford switched to front-drive with the Windstar in 1994, but Chrysler quickly one-upped Ford by adding a left-side rear sliding door.

By 2003, when Ford launched the Freestar, a re-engineered Windstar with little visual change, executives said exterior looks didn't matter. Customers couldn't tell minivans apart, they said.

But Ford conceded it renamed the vehicle in part to signal to consumers that its entry was new. It didn't work. Combined Windstar and Freestar sales plunged by 19.9 percent in 2004. Incentives soared, and Ford's minivan plant in Oakville, Ontario, underwent numerous shutdowns. Executives now acknowledge they didn't change the exterior enough.
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