At the end of 2001, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury had 19.9 percent of retail registrations, according to Polk. That fell to 16.4 percent in 2004.
The drop is worsening. Retail sales have fallen 10 percent during the first five months of 2005, says George Pipas, Ford's sales analysis and reporting manager. They plunged 15 percent in May alone.
But with new products arriving this year and next, retail share may be the problem Ford Motor can address most quickly.
There is promise. About 86 percent of sales of the new 2005 Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans and Ford Freestyle sport wagon are to retail customers. Residual values of those models are much stronger than those of other Ford cars.
Ford's overall retail car share has risen with the debut of the Five Hundred and the redesigned 2005 Mustang, Ford says. But the unexpected collapse of retail SUV sales has undermined those gains.
From 2002 to 2004, retail registrations of the Explorer, Ford's best-selling SUV, dropped 28 percent, Polk reported. Explorer sales fell sharply in the first five months of 2005, and the retail share continues to drop, according to Ford.
As a result, Ford's total retail share worsened in the first quarter of 2005. Ford's domestic brands held 15.4 percent of retail registrations, down from 17.7 percent in the first quarter of 2002, according to Polk.
Even though Ford has cut its volume to daily rental companies, fleet sales now account for a higher percentage of its mix than when the turnaround began.
Ford's next major chance to gain retail sales arrives this fall with the introduction of the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr mid-sized sedans. Top Ford Motor executives are aiming for total and retail share improvement in 2006, when the Fusion should be in ample supply.
"The biggest opportunity for share is going to come when the Fusion and its sister products hit the road," Bill Ford says. "Look, this was always a very delicate balancing act."
Those products arrive too late to turn around the retail share loss in 2005, Polk's Miller says. They should help in 2006, he adds, but a dramatic recovery isn't likely.
With the growth of competitors such as Hyundai and Kia, plus the specter of cars made in China arriving on U.S. shores, increases in retail share will be difficult, Ford analyst Pipas says. Ford needs hot products just to stay even.
"To increase retail market share, that means your retail business has to improve more than the competitors'," he says. "I just look at the track record, and I don't know that that's possible on any sustainable basis. I think that's daunting."