Ford puts focus on Fusion
Automaker tries to gain traction in midsize car market to compete with Camry, Accord.
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Years of painstaking work by Ford Motor Co. designers and engineers had reached the point of no return as a jury of eight consumers passed judgment on the 2006 Ford Fusion.
A successor to the Taurus, the aging sedan that once dominated the midsize car segment, Fusion is Ford's long-awaited answer to today's leading marques -- the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
So Ford arranged a comparison of the Fusion and its competitors, disguising the make and model of each. After examining the cars, jurors were told which was which.
As a video camera rolled, they huddled in a California hotel meeting room last month to reveal their verdict: They liked the new Fusion, but they were skeptical of the blue oval badge. One juror thought it was too good to be a Ford.
There lies the challenge for Ford as it launches its most significant entry in the midsize car segment since the 1985 introduction of the Taurus. The Fusion, with a starting price of about $18,000, must be good enough to convince buyers to return to the Ford brand and give up their Accord, Camry and Nissan Altima models.
The stakes are high. With its SUV sales and profits falling fast, Ford can no longer cede the passenger car market to Asian automakers. In recent years, thousands of Ford Focus owners have defected to Toyota and Honda when it was time to trade up from their small car.
Moreover, families have more choices today -- minivans, crossover wagons and small SUVs -- beyond the standard sedan, putting even more pressure on Ford to turn the Fusion into a hit.
To grab attention, Ford is combining Internet promotions with live music performances in a unique marketing crusade to win the hearts and minds of skeptics. The campaign will feature surprise concerts by high-profile acts in 10 cities.
"Our primary focus is on arresting the slide and moving forward," said Darryl Hazel, Ford division president. "In the last few years, we've been more in people's mind-set as it relates to trucks and SUVs. With this product, in combination with the Five Hundred, it does put us squarely in the car business."
The Fusion is the final piece of Ford's passenger car strategy, giving the brand an offering in three clearly defined segments: the Focus in small cars, Fusion in the entry midsize market and the Five Hundred in premium midsize vehicles.
The Contour -- Ford's last attempt at an entry-level midsize car -- fell short because the Taurus was too close in size and price. Today, Ford has two primary entries in the family car market -- Focus and the new Five Hundred. The Taurus and the full-size Crown Victoria are primarily sold to fleet customers such as taxi companies.
Every year, according to Ford internal data, the brand loses 10,000 Focus owners, 10,000 Mustang owners and 30,000 Taurus owners for lack of a viable midsize alternative.
"What this represents for us is a major offensive, on our part, into the heart of the car market," Hazel said. "And the heart of the car market these days is largely controlled by Toyota and Honda."
In 1989, on the strength of the Taurus, Ford held a record 15.4 percent of the passenger car market, according to Autodata Corp. Today, after a steady rise, Toyota owns 14.8 percent of U.S. car sales -- the most of any brand.
Ford hopes to sell about 160,000 Fusions in its first year, but it will take time to win back the kind of loyalty that has put Toyota on top.
"You (earn) it by providing a very competitive vehicle at a very affordable price with outstanding quality and very good durability and reliability as well," Hazel said.
Quality and reliability require years to establish. But Ford has taken the first step, pricing Fusion at $17,995 for a base model with a 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, and $21,295 when equipped with a 221-horsepower V-6.
Ford describes the Five Hundred as its flagship, but critics have slammed its reserved styling.
The Fusion may change the staid image of Ford's car showroom, said Guido Vildoso, automotive analyst with Global Insight.
"It looks very robust, very muscular," Vildoso said. They've done a superb job on the interior."
Fusion represents what Ford design chief J Mays calls "urban toughness." "What we heard from some consumers with the Ford Five Hundred was, 'Great vehicle ... a little too conservative,'" said Gerry Arrowood, general sales manager of Taylor Ford in Taylor. "Fusion is the next step up. It's aggressive."
Aggressiveness will also mark Ford's Fusion marketing strategy.
The automaker is scaling back traditional print and television advertising in favor of direct contact with small numbers of prospective customers who have expressed interest by visiting Ford Web sites.
In coming weeks, these tech-savvy consumers will receive text messages inviting them -- and handfuls of their friends -- to surprise concerts in 10 cities.
"Music is very important to these customers," said Jyarland Jones, Fusion launch manager. "And they're very much focused on friends and the role friends play in their lives."
Fusion's target customer is age 25-39, single or newly married and just starting to enjoy career success.
"They're not just out of college," Jones said. " ... They're comfortable exhibiting their success. That's where the great styling and presence of the car makes a lot of sense to them."
Ford envisions the Fusion buyer as someone who is sensible, but still has fashion sense.
"We have a lot of competitors that focus on functionality, and (the media) have called some of the competitive vehicles in this segment 'appliances,'" Jones said. "Consumers, today, feel like they have to choose. ... We talk about Fusion as being a balanced offering in that segment."