Ford, GM rev up compact minivan battle in Europe with Meriva and Fusion
By BRADFORD WERNLE
Automotive News Europe
The Opel Meriva, noteworthy for its ingenious flexible seating system, was one of the biggest hits of the Paris auto show.
But its rival, the Ford Fusion, already is showing up in European car dealerships and is being heavily advertised. Among the slogans: "Get used to a better view. Tall. Tough. The new Ford Fusion."
The two little people movers are early arrivals in a segment that will be hotly contested in Europe.
Uncharacteristically, the European arms of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors appear to have beaten the competition to market with a new generation of small minivans, unless one counts the Toyota Yaris Verso. But its sales volumes are tiny compared with what Opel and Ford expect from the Meriva and Fusion.
So far, the Meriva has been getting the more positive reviews.
"The Meriva is visually bolder and far more clever in the versatility of its interior than Ford's rather lazy effort," said a review in Britain's Autocar magazine.
But the two vehicles take different approaches to what is a new - and increasingly complex and fragmented - segment. What separates people movers and hatchbacks gets increasingly blurred in smaller vehicles.
Compared with the Fusion, "the Meriva concept is a different tradeoff - a different type of flexibility and a different type of package," said Martin Leach, president of Ford of Europe.
He said Ford is positioning the Fusion as an "urban activity vehicle," a tall, small car with the robust appearance of a sport-utility.
The Meriva, meanwhile, is being touted as a sporty people mover with a highly adaptable interior. It offers five flexible seats that can be moved backward, forward and sideways in various combinations. Some of the seats also can be stowed into the floor of the vehicle.
The system was developed by the team that designed the seating configuration of the Opel Zafira, the Meriva's big brother.
After its introduction in spring 1999, the Zafira quickly became the second most popular compact minivan in Europe after the Renault Megane Scenic.
Renault is credited with inventing the compact minivan segment with the Scenic, which was named car of the year in 1997. Ford already lost one European battle to rival General Motors. The Zafira and its multipurpose seven-seat layout was one reason that Ford reconsidered its approach to the compact minivan segment. Ford's Focus-based minivan won't arrive until next year, and it will still only offer five seats.
Earl Hesterberg, Ford's European sales and marketing chief, said Ford has high hopes for the Fusion.
"The Fusion appears to be very good for our brand," he said.
"It's driving more people into our dealerships than any other vehicle right now."
The Fusion resembles a sport-utility, both inside and out.
"Clearly, the Fusion is a more SUV-like animal than the Meriva," said Charles Young of J.D. Power-LMC in Oxford, England.
"That ought to argue in its favor because sport-utility sales rose about 20 percent in the first half of this year in a declining market, whereas MPV sales are trailing the market."
Nowhere does Opel compare its vehicle to a sport-utility. Instead, Opel plays on Meriva's sportiness.
J.D. Power-LMC estimates full-year European sales of about 180,000 Merivas and 125,000 Fusions. Research group DRI-WEFA predicts sales of more than 200,000 Merivas and 135,000 Fusions.
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My next Ford.....