DETROIT -- Ford Division is replacing its highest-volume car, the Taurus, with four vehicles that will each sell in much smaller volumes.
The Taurus, an industry icon that sold 401,049 units in 1996, will be retired, possibly as early as next year, say supplier and industry sources.
The Taurus will follow various high-volume domestic cars to the graveyard. They are victims of proliferating nameplates from Japan and Korea and declining car sales in the United States as light trucks overtook car sales.
Meanwhile, new assembly equipment helps Ford and other automakers juggle smaller runs of more models in the same factory.
The new Ford Five Hundred, due this fall, is one of four vehicles that will replace the Taurus and cover the mid-sized segment of the car market, suppliers say. The others are the 2005 Ford Freestyle sport wagon, the 2006 Ford Fusion sedan and an unnamed sport wagon derived from the Fusion for the 2007 model year.
While Ford expects the Fusion to top 200,000 units a year, none of the nameplates will come close to the 400,000-plus Taurus units at its peak.
The Taurus still is a high-volume car, largely because about 60 percent of them are sold to profit-eroding fleets. Last year, Ford sold 300,496 Tauruses in the United States, down 9.7 percent from 2002.
With the launch of the Five Hundred and Freestyle at its Chicago assembly plant, Ford is finally adding flexible manufacturing equipment to its car plants.
Flexible equipment also is likely at Ford car plants in Hermosillo, Mexico; Oakville, Ontario; and Atlanta.
Flexible equipment with computerized controls allows companies to build distinct models on the same assembly line. So manufacturers can provide more choices to consumers.
Ford is planning about 125,000 units each for the Five Hundred and Freestyle. But the Chicago plant can adjust the production mix to favor the vehicle that sells better.
Staffers at Ford Division are even taking bets on which car proves to be more popular.
Chicago also makes the Mercury Montego sedan, a sister to the Five Hundred. It eventually will produce a Mercury version of the Freestyle.
Ten years ago, by contrast, the company kept its Chicago and Atlanta plants busy by producing 428,718 Tauruses and 137,262 Mercury Sables. From 1993 to 2003, Ford Division's U.S. car sales slid from 1.29 million units to 792,313.