Ford bets new 2010 Taurus will be key to financial future


2010-Ford-TaurusThe big 2010 Taurus sedan will be in showrooms around Aug. 1, and for more reasons than you have fingers to count, it’s the most important Ford since the original 1986 Taurus.

The overarching reason, beyond the pioneering elements of its development: The car has to be a knockout because money-losing Ford (F) must sell more cars or join Chrysler and General Motors in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Taurus “is very important, a statement about Ford,” Mulally tells USA TODAY. “The challenge we have is (convincing car shoppers) that ‘We’re back’ in cars, with a full family” of car models.

He thinks he has a winner, calling the new Taurus “the neatest large sedan we have ever made.”

While Ford’s small Focus and redesigned midsize Fusion have hit sweet spots in the sour auto market, Ford has had no knockout punch, no flagship sedan that declares its car expertise in the way its top-selling F-Series pickups show truck prowess.

“People have always considered our trucks,” says Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s vice president in charge of global product development. “We’re trying to get people to get serious about considering Ford cars.”

Other reasons Taurus is critical for Ford:

•It is a radically new body, interior and suspension riding a rework of the current car’s chassis — not quite enough to be literally “all new” in industry engineering parlance, but new territory for Ford’s product line, design and marketing.

•It is intended to set the tone and pace for future Ford development programs.

•It is testing new theories about what big-car buyers really want.

•Its development included Japaneselike obsessing over small details owners might not notice unless the details are missing or poorly executed.

•Ford placed a big bet that computer design is advanced enough to bypass costly, time-consuming building of multiple generations of prototypes.

•Taurus has styling touches there just because designers liked them, believing they “assist in making the car more upscale, a little ‘bling,’ ” says Taurus design chief Earl Lucas. “The old Ford would have said, ‘Let’s don’t do that.’ ”

Though the original Taurus became the best-selling car in the U.S. in the 1990s, Ford had become a truck, not car, company by the time its 1991 Explorer turned growing SUV popularity into a craze.

In 2007, the last normal auto sales year, lopsided Ford sold twice as many trucks as cars at a time the industrywide split was nearly even: 53% of new vehicle sales were trucks, according to Autodata.

The first half of this year, with automakers still reeling from the recession sales collapse, cars still were just 38% of Ford’s sales.

Mulally is quick to agree the new Taurus won’t match the original’s annual sales of 350,000 to 400,000: “Of course not. The market’s changed. But that’s not the plan. The plan is to have a vehicle for consumers in every major market segment. Have a full line, and whatever vehicle we have will be best in class.”

For Taurus, he intends that to mean a stylish, tech-laden beacon that draws car buyers to Ford stores and validates his best-in-class assertion.

“It really is an attractive car. It has a style and distinctiveness and is a worthy flagship for the Ford brand,” says John Wolkonowicz, North American auto-market analyst at economic consultant IHS Global Insight.

“But is this going to be the savior of Ford Motor Co.? No way, no how,” says Wolkonowicz, who worked for Ford in product planning in the 1980s and as a consultant until 2003. “I believe the Taurus is a much nicer car than the (Chevrolet) Impala, but I believe the Impala will outsell Taurus based on its lower price.”

The Chevy starts at $1,280 less than Taurus’ $25,995 base. You can load Taurus up past $40,000, more than the likes of a Lexus ES 350 or Audi A4. Ford expects most Tauruses sold, however, to be about $29,000.

If Ford doesn’t have to lard on rebates, “Taurus will be a very profitable car,” Wolkonowicz says.

Relatively high prices might seem like madness these days, but Ford has its reasons. “How do you win in this (full-size sedan) segment? The data came back from several research studies and it was: When people buy large cars, what they’re really looking for” are cars that evoke “$80,000 and $90,000 vehicles, the really beautiful cars,” Reyes said by phone this week from Chicago, where he’s overseeing the start of Taurus production.

“This can’t just be a bigger Fusion,” he says.

If you’re willing to pay extra, Taurus offers as much radar power as you’d find in a fighter jet, Ford insists, to keep you safely away from obstacles ahead, behind and to the side. For a price, you also can have seats that heat, cool — and massage.

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