After years as bit players, cars are taking center stage in Ford Motor Co.'s product development priorities.
New sedans and other car-based vehicles are coming to lure a large chunk of mainstream consumers back to Ford showrooms. The aim is to bring Honda Accord and Toyota Camry buyers into the Ford fold with such sedans as the 2005 Ford Five Hundred and the 2006 Ford Futura.
Ford and the other domestic automakers have lost the edge in the family sedan segment to the Japanese automakers. The Ford Taurus, once the best-selling car in the United States, still is sold in high numbers - 332,690 in 2002 - but 60 percent of its sales are to fleet buyers. Retail customers are pulled to showrooms with huge rebates, not attractive got-to-have vehicles.
"If we're ever going to accomplish what we need to accomplish in market share gains, we've got to do it through product, and I think the car side needs some help," said Sam Pack, a Texas Ford dealer with three stores in metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.
Ford executives say that help is coming. The automaker is billing next year as the "year of the car" at Ford, with the new 2005 Five Hundred and companion Mercury Montego sedan, redesigned 2005 Mustang, and its supercar, the Ford GT. The car-based Ford Freestyle sport wagon also debuts.
The Five Hundred and Montego, about the size of the Toyota Avalon, feature higher seating positions and larger cabins than traditional sedans. They have German-influenced styling inside and out, with touches of wood and aluminum trim.
They will be followed a year later by the mid-sized Ford Futura sedan and its Mercury and Lincoln derivatives. Ford is touting the Futura as a classic family sedan. It takes front-end styling cues from the Ford 427 concept car shown at the 2003 Detroit auto show.
Those sedans will be the first of 10 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars, sport wagons and minivans derived from the Mazda6 platform.
Ford is betting that the vehicles based on the Mazda6 platform will account for 800,000 in annual sales by 2009. Ford aims to trim the total number of North American vehicle platforms from 16 to 12 by 2010, and it expects cars to represent a more significant portion of the remaining platforms, about 50 percent.
One industry analyst says Ford is pursuing the right strategy on its car designs but questions whether the vehicles will arrive on the market quickly enough to satisfy consumers.
Competitive powertrains also are important to the success of Ford's coming car lineup, says Mike Wall, analyst with CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Says Wall: "They're going to continue to lose share until the new product gets out there."