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(Photo)Ford's Freestyle will go on sale later this year. The Freestyle and Mercury offering will be built in Chicago.

Wagon based on Ford Freestyle is an effort to resuscitate the struggling nameplate

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. is expected to announce Wednesday plans to build a new Mercury crossover wagon, the latest effort to revive the declining brand.

The yet-unnamed Mercury model will be based on the Ford Freestyle, which hits showrooms later this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The vehicle — like its Ford cousin — will have three rows of seating and combine minivan attributes with those of an SUV.

It will be built at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant, where the Freestyle will be produced alongside two new sedans that make their debut in 2004 — the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego.

By adding a crossover to Mercury’s lineup, Ford hopes to jump-start the struggling brand. In recent years, Ford has discontinued models such as the Cougar sports coupe, Mystique midsize sedan and Villager minivan.

Last year, the only new model to join the Mercury fold was the Monterey minivan.

“At least I can make a promise that I’ve got new product coming and not just new colors,” said Paul Kuhn, owner and general manager of Park Lincoln Mercury in Detroit.

His store was the first Mercury dealership established after the brand emerged as an upscale alternative to Ford in 1939.

Ford is investing $800 million to revamp the Chicago plant to build the four new models and replace output of the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable.

In a speech before the Chicago Economic Club Wednesday during press previews of the 2004 Chicago Auto Show, Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. is expected to make the announcement and detail how many jobs will be created when production of the vehicles begin.

The Chicago show also marks the official debut of the 2005 Mercury Montego.

It’s unclear when production of the new Mercury crossover will start. The company declined to comment on its plans.

By the end of 2005, Mercury will have seven vehicles in its stable. Now, there are five: Grand Marquis, Sable and Marauder sedans, Mountaineer SUV and new Monterey minivan.

In addition to the Montego, Mercury will introduce the Mariner, an upscale version of the Ford Escape small SUV, this year.

Mercury still has more new nameplates in its pipeline in keeping with Ford’s ambitious plans to introduce six new Mercury models and five new Lincoln models within four years.

Mercury is developing its own version of the Ford Futura mid-size sedan planned for the 2006 model year. The vehicles will eventually replace the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable as the automaker’s high volume family cars.

“Clearly, Ford is willing to put money into the brand,” said Rebecca Lindland, senior automotive analyst with Maryland-based Global Insight.

Such attention “should provide a level of comfort to the people who work for Mercury,” Lindland said.

In recent years, Mercury’s U.S. annual sales have dropped to 202,000 — less than half the number recorded in 1999.

Besides a dearth of new product, the sales decline reflects Ford’s decision to forgo less profitable fleet and rental sales and kill a pair of unprofitable models — the Villager minivan and Cougar sport coupe.

Mercury’s growing lineup, Kuhn said, “reflects the fact that Jacques Nasser is not CEO of the company anymore. It’s pretty much widely believed that he had earmarked the demise of the Mercury franchise and because of that, all of our support, all of our product development, all of our research was basically stopped.”

Lindland said Mercury’s decision to enter the growing crossover market is another hopeful sign.

“It’s a smart move for anybody to enter the (crossover) segment at this point,” she said.

The number of crossover vehicles on the U.S. market in the 2004 model year will total 27, up from 15 in 1999, according to Ward’s Automotive Reports.

This week marks the launch of a new advertising campaign designed to boost Monterey’s sales as the prime minivan selling season approaches.

The campaign will focus on the Monterey’s premium features such as cooled seats and a front-mounted vehicle distance detection system that functions as a parking aid.

Combined with fresh styling, such features play to the tastes of Mercury customers, said Laura Soave Stoppa, Mercury SUV marketing plans manager.

“The Mercury customer doesn’t want just transportation,” Soave Stoppa said. “They want something a little bit more.”

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