Escape, Fusion: Ford's 1-2 punch at imports
New versions are aimed at Accord, Camry owners
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s global marketing chief, calls 2012 "Ground Zero for the American garage."
Translated, that means Ford is launching redesigned versions of two of its top three sellers this year into segments where the competition is white hot: mid-sized sedans and crossovers.
Ford's novel strategy is to package the redesigned Escape crossover and Fusion mid-sized sedan in showrooms as a one-two punch aimed at Honda Accord and Toyota Camry owners.
Ford's strategy has risks. The current Escape and Fusion have defied gravity recently, each setting a sales record of about a quarter million units in 2011 even though it was their last full year in production. Ford is replacing those tried-and-true best-sellers, both conservatively styled, with sleek but untested designs.
Not only that -- Ford has dropped the once de rigueur V-6 engine offerings from both vehicles in favor of exclusively four-cylinder powerplants. Each vehicle will be offered with two EcoBoost engine options, a sign of how much the market has shifted toward fuel economy. And Ford is betting that American buyers will embrace vehicles with sporty, firmly sprung, European ride and handling characteristics.
Farley: A big year for launches
Ford sees potential in launching two hot-selling vehicles this year, Farley said in an interview at the Escape media launch here.
"That is why I'm putting so much pressure on the launches," he said. "It's a very rare thing in our industry when any brand changes both those products in the same year, and it's happening for many brands" this year.
Most of Ford's major rivals are launching new entries in at least one of the two segments this year. Recent arrivals include the Chevrolet Malibu sedan, Honda CR-V crossover and Camry. Other new entrants will arrive later this year, including the Accord and Nissan Altima. And Hyundai is launching a redesigned Santa Fe crossover and new Elantra variants this year.
On the Ford front, the Escape arrives in showrooms first. The 2013 model went into production this month in Louisville, Ky. Ford will start building the Fusion late in the third quarter in Hermosillo, Mexico.
At the showroom level, Ford marketers want customers to think of the two vehicles almost as one.
Ford has changed the Escape's trim-level nomenclature to match that of the Fusion. Gone are the XLS, XLT and Limited designations used on the current Escape, and in are the S, SE and SEL and a new, top-of-the-line Titanium trim.
That fits with consumer shopping patterns, said Jason Sprawka, the Escape's marketing manager: "We know that a lot of customers cross-shop. They come in the showroom and start in the middle. They might buy smaller, and they might buy bigger. But they start with the mid-size car and small utility and sort of branch out from there."
Jason Sprawka: Ford will try to attract current Camry and Accord owners to the Ford Escape.
Ford changed the nomenclature to make sales consultants' lives simpler, Sprawka said.
"You've got an SE Fusion, an SE Escape. Both have 1.6-liter EcoBoost engines. Both will have Sync with MyFord Touch. They both have 17-inch aluminum wheels, and they're both roughly the same price."
That change to a simpler naming system is welcome, said Jim Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich., and a member of the Ford National Dealer Council.
"I'm always for less options. It makes all the sense in the world. There was a time when there were 5,000 different ways you could order our vehicles. Toyota had 30."
Among the 2013 Escape's features are a new, hands-free liftgate; MyFord Touch infotainment system, and active parking assist. It also will have Torque Vectoring Control and Curve Control, two electronic systems that help keep the vehicle under control in corners. The Fusion will have similar systems.
The engine lineups roughly match up. Both vehicles will have the 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter EcoBoost engines, and neither will offer a six-cylinder option. But only the Fusion will have hybrid options with a gasoline-electric hybrid and a plug-in offering.
About 47 percent of Escape buyers are conquests from other brands, and Ford would like to push that percentage up into the mid-50s, Sprawka said.
Ford has specific conquest targets in mind.
"There are 10 million Camry and Accord units in operation in the U.S.," Sprawka said. Ford will try to lure them to the Escape with a combination of fuel economy and the cargo-carrying capability of an SUV, he said.
Dave Sullivan, an analyst for AutoPacific, believes Ford has an opportunity in the current economic climate in which customers want luxury-style features without having to pay the premium for a luxury badge. He said: "There's a group of people who want an attractive vehicle that doesn't drive like an appliance."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at firstname.lastname@example.org.