Ford re­turns to United States mini­van mar­ket

The Pak Banker - - Company& -

MICHI­GAN: Ford Mo­tor Co., re­turn­ing to the U.S. mini­van mar­ket af­ter at least a four-year ab­sence, will count on a com­pact peo­ple mover it de­vel­oped in Europe to drive sales to the chil­dren of the Amer­i­can Baby Boom gen­er­a­tion.

Ford, de­but­ing the C-Max at next month's Detroit auto show, is hop­ing to lure young fam­i­lies with fuel econ­omy it says is the best of any mini­van and a price start­ing be­low $27,220. The U.S. will add 11 mil­lion new house­holds in the next decade, help­ing boost mini­van sales 52 per­cent by 2012, J.D. Power said.

"New house­holds will lead to new fam­i­lies look­ing for af­ford­able ve­hi­cles that can carry sev­eral pas­sen­gers and cargo," Schus­ter said in an in­ter­view. "Tra­di­tional mini­vans have some im­age prob­lems, so Ford is not go­ing to mar­ket the C-Max as a mini­van."

While the C-Max van is based on Ford's Fo­cus small car, it has slid­ing rear doors and seven seats typ­i­cal of mini­vans. The sec­ond-largest U.S. au­tomaker said last year that the C-Max will go on sale do­mes­ti­cally in late 2011. The in­tro­duc­tion has been de­layed un­til 2012, ac­cord­ing to Jeff Schus­ter, an auto an­a­lyst with re­searcher J.D. Power & As­so­ci­ates in Troy, Michi­gan.

The C-Max has the at­tributes of a tra­di­tional mini­van, "with­out look­ing like a box on wheels," Der­rick Kuzak, Ford's prod­uct devel­op­ment chief, told re­porters Dec. 14 at the plant in Wayne, Michi­gan, where the new Fo­cus will start pro­duc­tion Jan. 3. Ford will build 10 mod­els, in­clud­ing the C-Max, on the me­chan­i­cal foun­da­tion of the Fo­cus, Kuzak said.

Ford aban­doned the mini­van mar­ket in 2006, when it ended pro­duc­tion of its Frees­tar model. Ford sold 46,245 Wind­star and Frees­tar mini­vans that year, while Chrysler LLC sold 211,140 Dodge Car­a­vans and Honda Mo­tor Co. sold 177,919 Odyssey mod­els.

In 2008, Ford went af­ter the peo­ple-mover mar­ket with the boxy Flex model, which didn't achieve the au­tomaker's sales goals, Schus­ter said. Ford sold 38,717 Flex mod­els last year.

"The Flex has been po­lar­iz­ing be­cause of its looks-you ei­ther love it or hate it," Schus­ter said. "It's a large, heavy ve­hi­cle that you aren't buy­ing for its fuel econ­omy."

The U.S. mini­van mar­ket peaked at 1.4 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in 2000 and fell 70 per­cent to 415,173 last year, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Au­to­data Corp. of Wood­cliff Lake, New Jersey. J.D. Power fore­cast the U.S. mini­van mar­ket will grow to 630,857 ve­hi­cles in 2012 as the econ­omy re­cov­ers and the off­spring of the baby­boomer gen­er­a­tion be­gin hav­ing fam­i­lies, Schus­ter said.

Ford now sees an op­por­tu­nity in sell­ing a com­pact mini­van that is less than 15 feet long to the boomers' chil­dren, who are in­ter­ested in good fuel econ­omy and a model with "a tidy over­all foot­print," Kuzak said. The C-Max is two feet shorter the Honda Odyssey and the Dodge Grand Car­a­van, which each are about 16 feet, 11 inches long.

"That very ef­fi­cient size and price-point, we be­lieve, is well-suited to the needs of young fam­i­lies look­ing for fuel-ef­fi­cient al­ter­na­tives," Kuzak said.

Ford may sell as many as 50,000 C-Max mod­els an­nu­ally in the U.S., Schus­ter said. That would be more than twice

the sales of Mazda Mo­tor Corp.'s Mazda5 model, which sold 18,488 last year, mak­ing it the top-sell­ing com­pact mini­van in the U.S.

The C-Max will have bet­ter fuel econ­omy than the Mazda5, which gets 21 miles per gal­lon in city driv­ing and 28 mpg on the high­way, said Said Deep, a Ford spokesman, who de­clined to give a spe­cific fig­ure. It will be priced be­tween the Fo­cus sedan, which starts at $16,640, and the Edge cross­over, which starts at $27,220, Deep said.

To cre­ate cargo space in the small mini­van, the mid­dle seat of the sec­ond row can be folded un­der the right-hand seat, Ford said. The sec­ondrow seats also slide and re­cline. Ford will de­but a "hands-free lift­gate" on the CMax, which en­ables the driver to open the back hatch with a kick­ing mo­tion be­neath the rear bumper. That mo­tion trig­gers two sen­sors embed­ded in the rear bumper that set off the au­to­matic tail­gate. The driver must be car­ry­ing the key fob to en­gage the sen­sors. "The C-Max will be the first ap­pli­ca­tion of this technology, but stayed tuned, there's more to come," Frank David, vice pres­i­dent of prod­uct de­velop for Ford of Europe, told re­porters Dec. 14.

The com­bi­na­tion of new fea­tures, low price and high mileage may en­able Ford to suc­ceed in the mini­van mar­ket this time, Schus­ter said.

"The mini­van seg­ment is still vi­able and Ford needed to fig­ure it out," Schus­ter said. "Maybe this will work for them." -Bloomberg

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