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By AMY WILSON | Automotive News

Supplies of Ford Motor Co.'s new minivans are soaring, so the automaker is raising incentives, halting production and pumping up advertising.

The first national ads for the slow-selling Mercury Monterey minivan started Feb. 2. Ford Division also ran a one-day network TV commercial blitz for the Ford Freestar on Feb. 2. It will advertise the Freestar more frequently heading into spring.

The push comes as Ford is in the middle of a two-week shutdown at its Oakville, Ontario, minivan assembly plant to reduce inventories. That follows a previous down week in mid-December.

The minivans went on sale last fall. As of Feb. 1, Mercury had a 432-day supply of Montereys. Ford had a 199-day supply of the Freestar. Sixty days is considered normal.

"Have sales been slow?" said George Pipas, Ford's sales analysis and reporting manager. "Yes. Did we expect them to be slow? Yes."

Minivans typically sell best in the spring.

Until this month, Mercury had limited its national Monterey marketing to an AOL Internet campaign last fall. Mercury showrooms had been without a minivan since the Villager was discontinued in 2002. The new Monterey campaign includes TV, newspapers and magazines.

Ford Division started advertising the Freestar last fall. The Freestar's exterior styling is almost the same as that of its predecessor, the Windstar minivan. Ford executives have said they changed the name to update the minivan.

In addition to increased advertising, Ford also raised the cash rebate on the Freestar and the Monterey from $2,500 to $3,000 as of Feb. 2. That will help combat deep incentives from other competitors.

"The minivan market has been pretty tough with a lot of new entrants, but also some exceptionally aggressive discounting from Chrysler," Ford spokesman Jim Cain said.

In January, the Chrysler Town & Country carried a weighted average of $6,017 in rebates and other consumer incentives per unit, according to Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. The Dodge Caravan carried $6,111 in incentives. Chrysler is preparing to launch re-engineered minivans this year.
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