Lindsay Chappell and Rick Kranz
Mercury's place in the Ford Motor Co. family is secure, says Jim Schroer, the company's vice president of global marketing.
Ford will reinvigorate the Mercury franchise by stressing style, he said. And Mercury will try to regain a more distinctive identity through stand-alone showrooms and storefronts.
The brand will offer new products, including a 2003 Mercury Marauder high-performance sedan, based on the Grand Marquis, and a new entry to replace the Mercury Villager.
The actions belie industry speculation that Mercury could follow Oldsmobile into nameplate history, company executives said.
'Mercury is alive, well and living. Mercury is here to stay,' said Mark Hutchins, Lincoln Mercury president, at the Chicago Auto Show last week.
The Marauder, equipped with a 4.6-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-8 that produces more than 300 hp, will go on sale in the summer of 2002. A run of 10,000 to 15,000 units is planned, Hut-chins said.
Mercury also will offer a new product when the Villager minivan dies, although the replacement will not be a minivan, Hutchins said.
The vehicle, which will arrive in the 2003 model year at the earliest, will appeal to those shopping the Villager segment, the company said. For example, many automakers are offering sport wagons, which are seven-passenger vehicles that combine the packaging of a light truck with the ride and handling of a car.
At the same time, the company will try to craft a more distinctive brand image for Mercury.
Currently, Mercury is wedded to the Lincoln brand in many dealerships. There are about 750 Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, while all other Mercury combinations and stand-alones number about 1,200.
Reversing decades of past practice, Ford now wants to award open franchises to top-performing company dealers, creating a network of large, profitable dealers. It wants to give dealers the financial clout to create stronger images for each of its eight brands, including Mercury, through separate showrooms and storefronts and exclusive sales and service staffs.
'Mercury has gotten off track in its mission,' Schroer said. 'When Henry Ford created Mercury, it was the stylish brand. That has been its role from the beginning - cars that differentiate themselves by being a little more stylish. That's the role we're going back to at Mercury.'
'What we've seen in the industry is a squeeze on middle-market brands as luxury lines introduced less expensive models and entry brands have moved upmarket,' he said.
Mercury needs to differentiate its brand through style and not price, he said.