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US:Slow sales of Five Hundred spur layoffs, 2007 redesign

Next year, Ford will unveil a redesigned version of the Five Hundred with a bolder front end and a more powerful 3.5-liter engine.

In need of a face-lift

Slow sales of Five Hundred spur layoffs, 2007 redesign

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

The Ford Five Hundred has earned a reputation as a safe, solid and sensible car, but its ultra-conservative looks have turned it into a wallflower in the crowded midsize car segment.

Faced with slumping demand, Ford Motor Co. plans to slow production of the Five Hundred and lay off an unspecified number of workers at its Chicago Assembly Plant in the fall.

But the company hasn't given up on its flagship sedan. Early next year, Ford will unveil a redesigned version of the Five Hundred with a bolder front end and a more modern and powerful 3.5-liter engine, according to people familiar with the plans.

"It's not the disaster some people make it out to be, but we were too conservative," said a Ford official involved in the program to overhaul the car. "The new version will be much sexier."

Five Hundred sales peaked last summer and have dropped steadily since. Last month, Ford sold 7,726 Five Hundreds -- a decline of nearly 18 percent from the 9,375 sold in March 2005.

"We are taking a line-speed reduction to match production capacity with customer demand," said Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari.

As part of that move, she said Ford expects to lay off workers at the Chicago plant when the changes go into effect in October.

The plant also produces the Mercury Montego sedan and Ford Freestyle crossover utility vehicle, both of which are built on the same basic platform as the Five Hundred.

Ford also plans similar line slowdowns at its plants in St. Paul, Minn., and Wixom. In the past, the company has responded to drops in consumer demand by temporarily shutting down production for a week or so at a time, but workers say that often leads to quality problems with the vehicles and maintenance problems with the equipment.

David Cole, chairman of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, said assembly lines run better when they run continuously at a steady pace. That is something Toyota Motor Corp. learned a long time ago and has made a key element of its vaunted Toyota Production System. Now, Cole said, Ford seems to be taking a page from Toyota's playbook.

"It's part of a strategic change (at Ford)," Cole said. "What it says is they're getting religion fast -- and they need to."

Quality has never been a problem for the Five Hundred. Consumer Reports magazine gave the Five Hundred its top recommendation in this month's annual automotive issue. The vehicle also received high marks for safety from both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration

The Five Hundred also broke new ground for full-size domestic sedans by offering all wheel-drive and a higher position.

"The people who buy it love it," said Chris Lemley, who owns several dealerships in the Boston area. "We have very high customer satisfaction with it."

But analysts say the vehicle's uninspired design eclipsed all these qualities.

"From a functional perspective, it does everything well. From an emotional perspective it does nothing," said Erich Merkle, a brand analyst with IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids. "It looks like any other car on the road."

While it handles well and offers a comfortable ride, he said it lacks acceleration. Those familiar with the new design say most of the changes are to the vehicle's front end and incorporate several styling cues from Ford's better-selling Fusion sedan, such as the three-bar chrome grille.

While the company would not discuss the details of the new design, spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said Ford is pleased with consumer response to the Fusion and plans to share its design cues with other models.

"The design of the Fusion is very strong and reflects what we want to say about the brand," Tatchio said. "That is something that translates well to other cars."

But some, like Merkle, wonder if that will be enough.

"Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot more than a three-bar grille," he said.

The company has already added the distinctive grille to the new Ford Explorer and Sport Trac. It is expected to be featured on the next version of the popular F-series pickups, too.

The reworked Five Hundred will also feature the company's new 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission Ford developed with General Motors Corp. The combination is expected to pack a lot more power than the current configuration.

Sources in the company say the new design will be unveiled early next year, probably at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ford also plans to unveil redesigned versions of the Montego and Freestyle at the Chicago Auto Show next February.

The automaker had planned to kill the Freestyle next year and use the same platform for a new Mercury crossover. However, that plan has been scrapped as part of Ford's rethinking of its North American product strategy.

Faced with fierce competition, particularly from foreign brands, Merkle does not expect the redesigned Five Hundred to do much better than the original.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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