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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ford reinventing itself

European Ford Focus

Detroit's three act the way they always have. It doesn't matter that General Motors is a completely different company than it was 20, let alone 100 years ago. It still needs to feed and keep more divisions than anyone else. Chrysler bounces from feast to famine as easily as it bounces among different owners. Ford Motor Company has this habit of hatching successes, then letting them go to seed.

Ford Kuga

It held on to the Model T way past its due date, then stopped production to retool for the Model A. It was struggling to stay in business after World War II when it launched the '49 Ford lineup, a car that single-handedly saved the company. Its 1986 Taurus was an avant-garde success, but by 1990 it was a rental queen and remained so for the next 18 years. Think of the first U.S. Escort, the first U.S. Focus, the Lincoln LS.

The Fiesta, which reaches the U.S. market at least a year-and-a-half after its European launch, is Ford's promise to put that habit to rest. The plan is to revitalize the company with mostly European designs, mostly cars (and car-based crossovers). And with slick, well-appointed and fuel-efficient small cars, Ford is attempting to reinvent the Model T.

Our modern T is not the Tata Nano, nor the production versions of the Volkswagen Up! concept, but the next Ford Focus. Like the new Fiesta (and the 1908-27 T), Ford will build it worldwide with very little variation. Its platform will carry the "top hat" of various other models. The Model T was available as a touring car; a closed sedan, a roadster, a pickup truck, a van and just about any other light-duty bodystyle available back then. The Focus is already the basis for the C-Max MPV, Kuga crossover and a Pininfarina-built folding hardtop convertible. Here's what Ford plans to do to make this work:

Ford Mondeo

At least three variants for the U.S.: This includes Kuga, replacing the Escape and possibly taking its name, a Mercury-badged dedicated coupe and even a Lincoln. Marketing and communications veep Jim Farley says that the Lincoln will not be a Kuga-based crossover, but a small car designed to grab some "white space" in the industry. While a well-appointed Lincoln C-segment sedan with the '41 Continental nose could work well, I can't help thinking of the Cadillac Cimarron. I trust Ford designers and engineers are working to avoid paying homage to that early '80s car.

Kinetic design for midsize and small Ford division cars: Fiesta, Focus, Fusion (see Mondeo) and their variants, including crossovers, will wear Martin Smith's popular and critically acclaimed Kinetic Design language. Like the Fiesta, the Focus will be sold in the U.S. as both a four-door sedan and a four-door hatchback. The 2010 Taurus will be the Kinetic Design "bridge car" to traditional American design. Peter Horbury's staff remains in charge of cars and trucks that don't see the light of day outside of North America: Mustang, new unibody Explorer, Flex, F-Series, and Mercurys and Lincolns including those based on the global b-, c-, c/d- and d-segment platforms.

Focus and Fiesta will transcend their size categories: Ford says consumers in a clinic guessed the new North American 2011 Focus four-door sedan's price at $25,300, and the four-door hatchback's at $23,000. Consumers pegged the Fiesta's perceived price at $22,100. Both were guessed to be higher than Toyota and Honda competition. Warning: GM until recently was known for paying too much attention to clinics.

Ford Fiesta

The V-8, as we know it, is dead: Late last year at a presentation of Ford's coming EcoBoost gas direct-injection, turbocharged engine technology, I asked chief product guy Derrick Kuzak whether the V-8 was dead. "I don't know," he replied, then went on to essentially say it was. Last week in Europe for the global Fiesta launch, I raised the issue with marketing chief Jim Farley. He agrees that while the V-8 engine still has a place in big trucks and high-performance Mustangs, for the mainstream market, it is, in effect, dead. Here's one Ford constant that's going away by necessity. Since the days of Clyde Barrow, the V-8 Ford has been the icon of luxury car performance at a middle-class price.

Successful Ford models won't be neglected: Ford says mainstream models like the Focus and Fiesta will go no more than 3 1/2 years between substantial redesigns. By this, I assume Ford means what are called "major-minor" facelifts on cars like the Focus and Fiesta, and would be similar to Toyota and Honda product cycles, which now go about five years between complete redesigns.

Like the Model T, the next Focus should be all the car most people need. Unlike the Model T's lifespan, we won't see it march into the 2030 model year virtually unchanged. If Ford makes it to calendar 2010 and then sticks to this plan, it has a better chance for sustained success than in its first 105 years.