Ford fine-tunes Verve subcompact for American tastes

Ford designers reduced the size of the lower grille and enlarged the upper grille to create the North American Verve.
DETROIT — When Ford Motor Co. introduced its Verve hatchback concept at the Frankfurt auto show in 2007, the sleek subcompact drew rave reviews.

But Ford already had deemed the Verve — the first of three such concepts shown by the automaker in the past five months — to be too European in its looks and package for the United States. So company engineers and designers reworked the subcompact for American tastes.

The Verve sedan unveiled this month at the Detroit auto show is a preview of the subcompact that Ford plans to begin selling in the United States in 2010.

"The design is complete, and the look of the vehicle has been well-received by the U.S. customers," said Martin Smith, executive design director at Ford of Europe.

Smith's team led the design work on Ford's global subcompact, or B-car, project. It is the first family of cars slated for introduction under CEO Alan Mulally's mandate to develop global vehicles with regional variations. The first cars will go on sale in Europe and Asia this year.

The European Verve.
A key part of Ford's approach is adapting the vehicles to regional preferences. So Smith and his designers joined with designers from Ford's North American unit to fine-tune the Verve.

To get customer input, the company staged focus groups on the East and West coasts of the United States.

Many found the grille of the European car — with its large, lower trapezoidal opening — to be unbalanced.

"To some people's eyes in North America, it seemed to be too aggressive for them," Smith said.

So for the North American Verve, Ford reduced the size of the lower grille and enlarged the upper grille.

The body style is another major change. Ford says 80 percent of small-car buyers prefer sedans, so the Verve morphed into a four-door sedan for North America.

But although the concept is presented as a sedan, it could be built as a "hidden hatch," said Ford's small-car marketer, Beth Donovan. Instead of a traditional trunk, it could have a large liftgate hinged at the roofline for better access to the cargo space.

Ford also will explore the U.S. market's appetite for a traditional hatchback. The European Verve concept also was displayed at the Detroit show.

With today's younger car buyers wanting more premium features, Ford marketers say a hatchback with sharp design and high-end content could work here. A hatchback can be more than a cheap car for a college student, they say.

Said Smith: "I think we can challenge that perception."

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com
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