After entering the minivan market several years late, Ford Europe plans to be early for the next potential trend in passenger vehicles with its SAV crossover concept.
The SAV, or sports activity vehicle, is aimed at buyers who want a "lifestyle" vehicle that combines the interior space of a minivan with the sporty looks of an SUV and driving dynamics of a sedan.
A production version is likely to debut at Frankfurt's IAA in September.
Ford Europe is the first European volume carmaker to step into a niche that Japan's Nissan and German premium automakers BMW and Mercedes-Benz also are targeting.
Its Focus C-Max was the last entrant in Europe's medium minivan segment when it arrived in 2003 -- seven years later than some rivals.
Lewis Booth, Ford Europe chairman, said the brand's SAV would sit neatly between Ford's Mondeo upper-medium model and Galaxy large minivan.
He sees a new sub-segment emerging. "We expect the upper-medium market in Europe to break up. There is room for an SAV, or something like it," said Booth.
Geoff Polites, Ford Europe's vice president for marketing and sales, said vehicles such as the SAV would attract buyers from minivans because of their better looks and flexibility.
Ford's strategy highlights a dilemma faced by volume manufacturers in Europe.
With the drastic downturn in sales of the conventional upper-medium vehicles -- the Mondeo's sales fell 14.3 percent to 170,998 units in 2004 versus 2003 -- manufacturers are rushing to create vehicles that meet customers' demands for more lifestyle-oriented products so that they can fill unused factory capacity.
Commenting on the SAV, Global Insight automotive analyst Nigel Griffiths said: "It is going to get a lot of people talking about it. But the styling has to be right. It's got to be exactly positioned in people's imagination as a sports activity vehicle."
He added: "Whoever hits the right note for this thing is going to have substantial growth, I suspect."
The SAV is based on Ford's new CD architecture, which will also underpin the next Mondeo. Ford did not discuss engine options, but one likely choice could be a Ford version of the V-6 diesel engine used in the Jaguar S-type.
The concept's exterior is designed to be sleek and athletic. The sporting theme is continued inside with an interior trim of leather and fabrics inspired by high- tech sportswear.
Martin Smith, Ford Europe's executive director of design, said the concept showed the first evidence of Ford's new design direction.
"Think of it as driving dynamics made visible," he said.
As part of its versatility, the concept features integrated luggage trolleys in the rear and a row of three individual rear seats that can be reconfigured by remote control.
Using electric motors, the middle seat slides back. The two outer seats then shift inward slightly to give occupants more space.