After lengthy internal debate, Ford product developers have decided the multi-activity vehicle based on the Focus will only come with one seating configuration - five seats.
The decision means Ford will not attempt to compete directly with the groundbreaking Opel/Vauxhall Zafira compact minivan, which surprised the market with its flexible seven-seat system when it was introduced three years ago.
And, contrary to some earlier reports, Ford sources say the company will introduce a conventional three-door Fiesta instead of a radically different three-door with a Ka badge. Instead, Ford will keep producing the current Ka until around 2005, but will upgrade its powertrain with two new engines.
A derivative called the SportsKa will be introduced in 2003. Ford has already shown its planned StreetKa roadster.
The Focus-based multi-activity vehicle will debut at the Paris auto show in September and is expected to go on sale in early 2003.
Ford's difficulties with the multi-activity vehicle and the Ka show the problems automakers are having in Europe as segments blur. Finding a 'segment buster' is not an easy task. Following on the success of a vehicle such as the Ka is not easy either.
Ford made the decision on the Focus multi-activity vehicle after focus group research showed the majority of customers would be happy with five seats and would not use two extra small rear seats, according to a company source.
Potential customers in need of seven seats said they would prefer to buy the Galaxy full-size minivan than a smaller, Focus-based vehicle. Ford plans to continue offering seven seats in the next-generation Galaxy, which will be based on the Mondeo platform after 2004. That is the last year Ford will jointly manufacture the Galaxy with Volkswagen in Palmela, Portugal. The VW Sharan and Seat Alhambra minivans are also built at Palmela.
Ford's decision on the multi-activity vehicle puzzled some analysts. When the Zafira first appeared, Martin Leach, Ford's then-new product
development chief, decided to kill the company's original idea for a compact minivan based on the Focus. Ford was taken by surprise by the
Zafira's seven seats and some analysts expected Ford to come up with a new seating idea for a rival vehicle.
'It's now coming out three years later than it should have come out and that's a major blunder,' said Nigel Griffiths, chief automotive economist at DRI-WEFA in England. 'They'll be the last major player to enter the compact minivan market in the C [lower-medium] segment. They seem to have gone back to their old ways of targeting where the market is today rather than where the market is going in three years' time.'
But a Ford official defended the decision, saying it would have been difficult to build a crashworthy seven-seater. Besides, the Zafira's seven-seat system, called 'Flex-7,' is well protected by patents.
With the Galaxy, the Focus-based multi-activity vehicle and the Fiesta-based Fusion, Ford believes it has the people-mover market covered.
The Ka has also been the cause of much debate within Ford. Now the life of the Ka will be extended until about mid-decade on its current architecture. Ford has already announced it will launch the StreetKa, a two-seat roadster. The car will be built by Pininfarina. Ford also plans another sporty derivative called the SportsKa. Ford will give the Ka a power boost with two eight-valve Duratec engines: a 1.3-liter, 68hp version and a 1.6-liter, 90hp version. The engines were derived from eight-valve RoCam engines used by Ford in its Ikon car in South Africa.
Ford wants to continue the Ka name because it brings many customers from other brands such as Fiat, Renault and Citroen to the Ford brand. The Ka also attracts a majority of female customers.