Those of you who read Vent #525, in which I had the temerity to make recommendations to once-mighty General Motors, may recall that in the last paragraph, I threatened to do the same for the other two (or 1.5, depending on your point of view) members of Detroit's Big Three. And now it's Ford's turn.

Things are happening in Dearborn, and they're generally not good things. As recently as 1998, Ford had 25 percent of the US automotive market. Today it's more like 10 percent, and it's not getting any better.

What's gone wrong? The most obvious problem, I think, is stale product. Consider:

  • Ford launched the Focus in 1999 for the 2000 model year, one year after it appeared in Europe for the first time. After a six-year run, the European Focus was replaced with a second-generation model in 2004; in North America, the 2008 Focus is still based on the original design.

  • The current Crown Victoria is mostly unchanged from 1992; the Panther platform, on which it is built, dates back to 1983.

  • Once a Ford cash cow, the Taurus got no substantive updates following the 2000 facelift to the 1996 design.

  • The spiffy little Escape mini-ute, introduced in 2001, has had exactly one incremental improvement: the addition of a hybrid version, licensing some technologies from Toyota, mostly to avoid the possibility of patent infringement.

Nor has the Premier Automotive Group, the umbrella for Ford's Euroluxe brands, been much of a world-beater: while Volvo is holding its own, Jaguar is losing money right and left, and Land Rover is still suffering from the same quality issues that bedeviled their previous British (and, later, German) ownership. Aston Martin was doing well, but Ford sold off 92 percent of the company last month for a bit less than $1 billion, cash sorely needed in Dearborn.

This is not to say that there are no bright spots for Ford. The Fusion family sedan is doing fairly well, and at least some people are cross-shopping it with the Toyota Camry, which has ruled this segment for years. The new Edge crossover-SUV is also scoring well for Ford in a new niche, garnering sales that never would have gone to the Freestyle. And, well, everyone still loves the Mustang.

Still, a few things really need to be addressed:

  • Do something with Lincoln.  This is supposed to be your answer to Cadillac. Lately, you haven't said anything: the Zephyr/MKZ (make up your mind) is nice enough, but everyone knows it's a Ford, or at least a Mercury, and the Navigator doesn't compete with Caddy's Escalade in any way other than chrome content.

  • Get rid of Jaguar.  It's a drain on the corporate exchequer, and considerations of Jaguar's market positioning is keeping you from doing something with Lincoln (see above).

  • Come up with some better advertising.  There hasn't been a memorable Ford ad since "Have you driven a Ford lately?" You may have some competitive, even superior, vehicles, but who's going to know, other than a handful of motorheads?

  • Solidify Mercury as an alternative brand.  Current Mercury marketing is aimed largely at women, and that's fine, but women have other interests besides style. Give them some unique vehicles. Ford of Europe — and, for that matter, Ford of Australia — have good contenders. It's about time Mercury was something other than Lincoln's budget brand.

And for Edsel's sake, couldn't you come up with a better name for a new crossover than "Flex"?

Two down, Chrysler to go.

The Vent

#527
  1 April 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill