DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. has increased spending on advertising and discounts to market the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV in 2006.
Ford generally has done well with the low-volume Escape Hybrid since its introduction in 2004. Production is limited, and the vehicles move off dealership lots much faster than gasoline-powered Escapes.
But sales have been slower than anticipated in some markets, such as the Northeast, according to some dealers and sources close to the program. Ford is experimenting with incentives and fine-tuning distribution, they say.
Ford and dealers don't "have a handle" on the regional differences in demand, said Tom Addis, chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council. The customer waiting lists that are common with the current-generation Toyota Prius hybrid car haven't materialized for Ford.
"Every dealer naturally clamored to get one, and then they find out perhaps they don't have a market for that particular vehicle there," said Addis, dealer principal at Lake City Ford in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "So they sit longer; so you go through growing pains."
$1,000 in incentives
Ford is offering as much as $1,000 in incentives on the Escape Hybrid. Ford officials say dealers need help closing deals, considering that rebates of as much as $3,000 are available on the gasoline-powered Escape. That regular Escape already is priced about $3,500 lower than the comparable hybrid. The Escape Hybrid has a base price of $27,515, including shipping.
"The hybrid has a price premium already," spokesman Dan Bedore said. "You're really making the walk from a conventional to a hybrid just untenable if you don't have any support on it."
Successful hybrids are a key tenet of Ford's turnaround. But the automaker has to work through the growing pains.
Nationally, Ford had about 3,900 Escape Hybrids in stock at the end of February.
In some markets, such as Florida, the company underestimated the demand for the Escape Hybrid and overestimated the strength in others, such as metropolitan New York, sources close to Ford's hybrid program said.
As of early March, Ford had a 152-day supply of the Escape Hybrid at dealerships in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, one source said. One dealer in that market has had a 2005 model parked on the lot for more than a year.
"We move it around, clean snow off it; it sits," said the dealer, who did not want to be identified.
Nationally, it took Ford dealers an average of 46 days to turn an Escape Hybrid as of February, according to J.D. Power and Associates' Power Information Network. The gasoline-powered Escape required 85 days.
"It's still moving faster than the traditional Escape, but it is turning slower than some of the hybrids," said Tom Libby, J.D. Power senior director of industry analysis. "The Escape as a hybrid is sort of middling."
The Toyota Prius is the star of the hybrid market, Libby said. It took an average of just nine days to turn a Prius in February, according to Power Information Network. Going back to October 2003, the average monthly incentive on the Prius has ranged from $0 to no more than $16.
A tale of 2 incentives
The average Escape Hybrid incentive was $400 in December. It dropped to $0 in January and went back up to $244 in February, Power said. The average incentive on the companion Mercury Mariner Hybrid was $1,525 in December.
Ford discounted the Escape Hybrid late last year in part because it was moving slowly in some markets, sources close to Ford said. The base Escape Hybrid was discounted $1,411 under Ford's Simple Plan year-end sales blitz.
The automaker is rolling out an advertising campaign to build awareness.
Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said in January that the company has to put more "marketing muscle" behind the Escape Hybrid this year. It kicked that off with a $2.5 million Super Bowl commercial featuring Muppet character Kermit the Frog.
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