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Ford to reinvent sluggish minivans
New models are key to rescue plan

January 20, 2006



The Ford Fairlane concept vehicle debuted at the 2005 North American International Auto Show. (Photo by Autoweek)

The dramatic rescue plan Ford Motor Co. is to announce Monday is expected to include a number of new vehicles to fix its flagging brands, including a radical new direction for its minivans.

Ford is likely to move away from the traditional minivan look epitomized by its slow-selling Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans, according to company and industry experts familiar with the plan.

It will replace them with one or more new vehicles similar to the Fairlane concept wagon that won wide praise at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The Fairlane could go into production at Ford's assembly plant in Oakville, Ontario, as soon as next year.

The Fairlane won praise for its combination of car-like looks with the practical three-row seating that has made minivans the vehicle of choice for a generation of U.S. families.

Ford expects the production Fairlane to match a minivan's interior space and kid-hauling capability in a stylish package that will appeal to more buyers.

The concept vehicle featured a large and luxurious interior and was clearly destined for production.

The Fairlane will probably share its structure with a new family of full-size vehicles in the works for several of Ford's brands, including Volvo and Lincoln.

Ford also is developing at least one new full-size luxury sedan for its Lincoln brand, and a smaller Lincoln sport sedan is likely.

In addition, Ford has five new midsize vehicles coming from the program that produced its new Fusion sedan and the Edge SUV the company unveiled last week at the auto show in Detroit.

Ford executives have repeatedly said that the Way Forward plan will present a wide-ranging strategy that not only includes cost-cutting measures, such as closing plants, but initiatives to improve the automaker's products.

"I think it'll be a little bigger than most people expect," David Cole, an industry expert who runs the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Thursday. "I think this is a very important time, and maybe the most important time at Ford Motor Co. in the past 50 years. They have to get this right."

Although most of the discussion about Ford's plans have focused on which plants it will close, ending production of slow-selling models -- like the Freestar and Monterey -- would also be a big step in the right direction. But even at this late date, not all decisions have been made.

"The situation is still fluid" as to which plants and vehicles will go, a source familiar with the discussions said Thursday.

Ford executives have said they believe a vehicle like the Fairlane could become the defining entry in the fast-growing market for family transportation that combines the practicality of a minivan with the styling and upscale appeal of SUVs like the Lexus RX330.

Ford's current minivans have struggled since the Freestar and Monterey debuted in 2003. Panned for lackluster styling and a paucity of new features, the two minivans have never been as popular as the Ford Windstar model they replaced.

Combined sales of the Freestar and Monterey were a paltry 85,751 last year, making Ford virtually irrelevant in a minivan market dominated by models like the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

The minivans' failure is a particularly bitter disappointment to Ford.

The automaker regularly sold more than 200,000 Windstars annually. The Windstar won five-star crash ratings and became so successful that Chrysler Group executives privately admitted they feared it could displace their models as industry leader.

Ford squandered that strength with a number of product-planning mistakes. It missed out on the move to add dual sliding doors, which cost it sales.

In addition to the Fairlane, Ford has a new flagship luxury sedan in the works for its Lincoln brand. That car will look a lot like the MKS concept car at the current auto show and will share its basic engineering with the new Volvo S70 sedan that goes on sale in Europe later this year.

Lincoln also is reportedly developing a compact sport sedan based on the phenomenally popular Ford Mustang.

Ford, which made $1.9 billion through the first nine months of 2005, has refused to comment on speculation about which plants it might close, causing anxiety to mount in cities where tens of thousands of workers build Ford cars, trucks and auto parts.

Union workers are planning to gather in plants across the country Monday morning to learn the fate of their facilities on a telecast from Dearborn.

Analysts say they expect Ford to close four or five of its 18 assembly plants in North America as well as several plants that build parts.

While there is disagreement among the experts, most of the attention has focused on assembly plants in Wixom; St. Louis; St. Paul, Minn.; Atlanta, and Cuautitlan, Mexico.
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