Seven Ways Forward
Job One is to bring America some new Fords
By KEVIN A. WILSON
Photo's by Global Auto Index
AW NEWS ANALYSIS
While setting out a vision for The Way Forward Jan. 23 (News, Jan. 30), Ford execs said the key to revamping the company’s faltering North American car business is to build vehicles customers want. They admitted to developing some cars and trucks on the basis of what could be built most easily in existing factories or because of what competitors were offering. No more, they pledged.
Instead, Ford will seek out “white space” in the market where consumers’ needs are not being met (and where there is little competition). That is where innovation comes in, creating new segments as Ford did with the pony car 40 years ago, or Chrysler with minivans 25 years ago, or as Toyota did recently with hybrids. Companies can’t just run clinics and surveys and expect to discover customer desires, said chairman Bill Ford.
“My great-grandfather [company founder Henry Ford] once said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted before he built his first car, they would have said they wanted a faster horse,” Ford explained.
Claiming the corporate resurgence has already begun, Bill Ford cited the recent success of the Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan/Lincoln Zephyr sedans, and pointed to the upcoming Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers as evidence the company didn’t just start thinking about this in January.
For his part, president for the Americas Mark Fields said the future product plan would avoid “me too” vehicles that simply match the competition’s offerings, but didn’t lay out many specifics. He said the company anticipates big growth in the small-car segment, and that it has already engineered or started developing most of the new platforms it will need between now and 2012.
Putting all this together with what we know about what Ford has in the works and what it builds elsewhere in the world, we compiled this list of vehicles Dearborn must build. If Ford makes good on its pledge to innovate, however, it will generate at least one big surprise that puts this whole list in the shade. Making talk into reality is the hard part. To quote founder Henry Ford again, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
1) Focus C1
Ford didn’t bring the new European Focus to the United States, deeming the new, smaller Mazda 3-based platform too expensive. Instead Americans were told we could keep the old platform, which, like most stale products, grows staler by the day. What has changed? Post-hurricane America turned away from SUVs and toward small cars more sharply than anticipated and Ford now projects 40 percent growth in the small-car segment, changing all the small-car math. Bringing the C1 Focus here is a move Ford should be able to pull off quickly.
2) ReThink Minivan
What if Ford zags when others zig, taking its people movers where the other guys ain’t? Fairlane points the way for the seven-seat segment, where a nontraditional design couldn’t fare any worse than the Freestar has since Ford took the Wind out of its name and its sales. Fairlane could appeal to folks who want out of the big SUV but dislike the looks of traditional minivans. The SAV concept from last year’s show circuit meanwhile would serve the compact minivan segment with style and utility.
The 2004 concept plays to the same retro off-road themes as the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra. It could be combined with a program to replace the Ranger compact pickup in 2008 or 2009, by which time the bloom should be off the Hummer H3’s rose, and the four-door Jeep Wrangler we will see in a couple months won’t be quite as fresh an idea as it is now. Look for hybrid, diesel and flex-fuel potential here, and lots of upside aftermarket potential for add-ons and adventure gear.
4) Ranchero Revival
Ford’s Australian arm builds this Falcon ute that could make the transition to America at least as easily as making Pontiac GTOs out of Holdens. We would give this one to Mercury so that Lincoln Mercury dealers have a truck that doesn’t compete directly with F-Series, and they can get rid of that silly damned LT thing. Make it a flex-fuel deal or equip it with the high-tech DuraTorq diesel out of Europe, and watch the parking lots at Home Depot and Lowe’s fill up with Rancheros festooned with NASCAR stickers.
5) B-segment subcompact
Think Mini Cooper, Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio. Can Ford make a play? Last year’s SynUS concept was supposed to point the way, but the Scion xB is already here. Instead, consider: In Brazil Ford makes an EcoSport (bottom pic) built on Fiesta/Mazda 2 mechanicals. In a little over a year the Fiesta/Mazda 2 is due for replacement. Now mix in the Model U design study from the 2003 Detroit show (not pictured), sporting the new face of Ford and some innovative thinking on bodywork and packaging. Blend it with the Faction concept car (top pic) from the ’03 Los Angeles show. Put it together either in Mexico or somewhere along the southern tier of the United States (where the transplants all play, and tax incentives for post-hurricane investment are easy pickin’). Use the corporate 1.8-liter diesel or diesel-electric hybrid technology along with the CVT and you could have a contender for the hearts and minds of America’s youth.
Look to a stylish B-size coupe drawn from the Euro-market Ka line (Ka, SportKa and StreetKa). Remember the Mercury Messenger concept from 2005, the Mustang platform with a design that wanted to be a Capri or Cougar revival? Well, shoot the Messenger. Bad idea for the freethinkers intended to be Mercury’s new target. The Ford Reflex concept wasn’t received all that well in Detroit (above), but if you have the Ka or Fiesta/Mazda 2 mechanicals in hand, the notion of a sporty coupe version has real potential as Ford of Europe once demonstrated with a car called Puma. Notice there were no Mercury concepts in Detroit? Perhaps because Fields and company were examining killing off the division. Now they have decided to keep it, and it would make a good home for a lightweight fwd coupe for those who might otherwise gravitate to the Civic Si or Scion tC. And that crowd is just not that into Mustang. They’ve seen lots of “viral marketing” web videos about the Ka, though.
7) A true compact pickup
We’ve mentioned Ranger is due (actually, far overdue) for replacement, but we expect the new model may be a midsize truck to contend with Canyon, Tacoma and Frontier, all of which have migrated upmarket—if they were Wendy’s combo meals, they’d be Biggie size. Today’s antiquated Ranger is the last truly compact pickup in America. If the steady increase in size of Civic and Corolla has left room for the Fit and Yaris, doesn’t the steady inflation of compact trucks leave room for a revival of the Datsun pickups of the ’60s? Sure it does, and Ford is building this little 1.8-liter diesel Bantam in South Africa (down there they call this form a “bakkie”). Bantam is a front-driver though, and if awd is not a possibility, maybe somewhere else in the system there is a true compact pickup candidate. It’s a big world, and Ford is a global player. As Ford president and COO Jim Padilla said, The Way Forward is all about “maximizing our global synergies.” Yeah, he really said that, but it’s okay, we understand.