Fusion defies industry slump
Ford sedan shines with its style, price
Poto by Autoindex.org
BY SARAH A. WEBSTER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
In contrast to terrible industry-wide auto sales last month -- the worst October in 13 years -- the Ford Fusion sedan appears to be a runaway hit.
So much so that Ford Motor Co. is comparing the reasonably priced, nicely styled midsize sedan to the heart-pounding Ford Mustang.
"I believe the Fusion has the potential to take the baton from the Mustang as this year's hottest car in the industry," George Pipas, Ford's U.S. sales analysis manager, said Tuesday.
Comparing the new Fusion to the 41-year-old Mustang nameplate seems brave, especially after only one month of sales. But the fact Ford is talking about both cars in the same breath speaks to its high expectations for the Fusion.
It's a bright spot in an otherwise bleak auto landscape. Last month, consumers bought 14.1% fewer cars and trucks -- 1.1 million -- than they did in October 2004. That makes last month the worst October since 1992, according to Autodata Corp. of Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Ford lost $2.1 billion in its North American automotive operations through September, and it desperately needs a hit car to reverse its fortunes. The customer buzz in the showrooms suggests the Fusion may be it.
"Sometimes you can just feel it," Pipas said. "These cars couldn't arrive at a better time as consumers shop for value and fuel economy. But I guess it doesn't hurt that these cars are stylish, too."
The Fusion, which is made at the company's assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, starts at $17,795 and comes with a choice of two engines. The 3.0-liter V6 gets 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 m.p.g. on the highway. A smaller 4-cylinder engine gets 23 m.p.g. city and 31 m.p.g. highway.
Pipas said the company thought it would sell 2,700 of the vehicles in October. But Ford sold almost 4,100 -- 50% more than expected.
Ford's boasting about the Fusion doesn't appear to be just corporate hype, either.
"The Fusion is going to be the 300C for Ford," Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., predicted, referring to the hit Chrysler had with its full-size sedan last year. "This was essential for them to do this."
The stronger-than-expected start for the Fusion stands in sharp contrast in the troubled auto sales market. Automakers blamed a hangover from this summer's employee-pricing sales blitz for the dismal results, and they weren't sure when sales might pick up again.
What is clear is that consumers are leaning more toward cars than trucks at the moment -- a trend that is clearly helping Fusion sales. Car sales through October were up 2.7%, while sales of SUVs, pickups, minivans and other trucks were flat. That's making other vehicles, such as the Chevrolet HHR crossover, hot sellers, too.
The new Fusion is on showroom floors for an average of 11 days before being sold, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), a division of J.D. Power and Associates. That is about the same or better than other midsize sedans, such as the Toyota Camry, which sells in an average of 14 days.
The Fusion is also attracting a younger buyer, about 46 compared with an average of about 51 for the leading midsize competitors, an analysis of V6 models by PIN shows.
If Ford can maintain that momentum, the Fusion might give Japanese car favorites, such as the Camry and Honda Accord, competition -- just as Ford did in the 1980s, when the Taurus and Escort were best-selling models.
Spinella credits the Fusion's bolder front end, slightly reminiscent of General Motors Corp.'s new Cadillacs, for the vehicle's success.
Salesmen, he said, are often the hardest sell for automakers. But the Fusion seems to have won them over.
"These guys just fell in love with it," Spinella said. "Now they just need to ... hope they don't have a recall."
Many Ford dealers, who were allotted just one or two Fusions in October, reported that the Fusion is doing better than they expected.
"It's an awesome vehicle," said Vernon Krause of Cherokee Ford in a suburb of Atlanta. "The guy that we sold ours to went and looked at a Honda Accord and came back and bought a Fusion. ... My 20-year-old daughter in college wants to drive it."
Mike Maroone, president of AutoNation Inc., the largest chain of auto dealerships in the country, noted how well the Fusion was doing in showrooms.
"I think it's a very bold design for a Ford," he said. "It adds a lot to the Ford lineup."
Bert Boeckmann, president and owner of the Los Angeles-area Galpin Motors Inc., the largest Ford dealer in the country, said, "Our salesmen are very enthusiastic about that car."