Ford Division, whose market share was flat last year, plans to regain momentum by discarding the industry's traditional hard line between cars and trucks.
Ford is pioneering new category breakers in a major product push beginning this fall. The strategy will broaden the division's lineup and leave few vehicles untouched.
The changes range from the Ford Focus - a small car designed with a nod to light-truck functionality - to the top end where the Ford Excursion sport-utility takes on General Motors' Suburban.
In addition, the division hired an outside marketing expert to sell the new products. (See story on Page 3.)
Why does Ford believe its new strategy will work? Customers accustomed to the versatility of sport-utilities are open-minded and willing to consider something new, Ford says.
'We are trying to stay ahead of the game. The word I use is innovation,' Ford Division President Jim O'Connor said.
Among the new products are:
The 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac that joins a sport-utility cabin to a pickup cargo bed.
The 2001 U204 sport wagon that mounts truck equipment and styling on a nimble car platform.
The 2000 Ford Excursion that marries a super-sized sport-utility to a heavy-duty truck platform seen previously only at construction sites.
In early 2000, Ford Division will pioneer a new vehicle segment when it introduces the Sport Trac. The industry does not yet have a name for the sport-utility/pickup combo.
'After someone turns in a Ford Explorer do they want a larger vehicle, a new Explorer or a new type of vehicle?' O'Connor said. 'We can lead the consumer into something they haven't thought about.'
The Sport Trac is one of a range of new products designed to capture buyers who now expect a vehicle to do more, O'Connor said.
A new 2000 Ford F-150 Crew Cab joins a Ford Expedition cabin to a shortened F-150 cargo bed to create a vehicle that accommodates a work crew or a family crew, O'Connor said.
The Sport Trac and the F-150 Crew Cab will arrive in showrooms in the first quarter of calendar 2000, O'Connor said. He would not disclose volume targets.
Ford also is converting its assembly plant in Claycomo, Mo., to build a 2001 sport wagon available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Code-named U204, the vehicle marries a five-passenger sport-utility cabin to a compact car chassis.
The 2000 Ford Excursion arrives as the division's largest sport-utility yet. Longer, wider and taller than the Chevrolet and GMC Suburban, the Excursion is based on the redesigned 1999 Super Duty platform.
CHANGING THE CAR
Nor is the division's car lineup immune to cross-fertilization.
The 2000 Ford Focus was created with a high roof line, raised seating position and tall, wide doors to appeal to drivers accustomed to the command seating position, visibility and roominess of minivans and sport-utilities.
The Focus will be offered in North America in three-door, sedan and station wagon versions. The station wagon is a deliberate nod to the cross-fertilization trend.
The division also is restyling its top-selling car, the Taurus, for the 2000 model year.
J Mays, Ford vice president of design, calls the cross-pollination the search for the product 'sweet spot' that will replicate the success of the minivan.
Buyers are ready, said Ford Division spokeswoman Anne Doyle. 'A sedan to a pickup truck is a very big leap. But the sport-utility has been a bridge. It has opened people's minds to new possibilities and new demands and expectations of a vehicle.'
In calendar 1998, Ford Division was the volume leader in the United States. Its car and light-truck sales totaled 3,288,544 units, a 2.4 percent increase over 1997. But share of the U.S. car and light-truck market dropped 0.1 percent to 21.1 percent.