Why Ford wants to be Toyota
The differences couldn't be more evident. Mark Fields announced that Ford Motor Company is renaming the Five Hundred with the old Taurus name at a Chicago Auto Show breakfast. Freestyle becomes Taurus X (for crossover - get it?) and Mercury Montego becomes Sable.
Makes it hard to avoid the cliche, "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." Ford figures the new old names will resonate better with customers who wonder why the company stopped building such a good rental car.
Five Hundred, Montego and Freestyle apparently had better name recognition in their first year on the market, 2005, when Ford sold nearly 220,000 of them. Last year, combined sales dropped 24 percent, to 165,100.
Later that morning, over in the next room, Toyota introduced its new-generation Highlander Hybrid crossover SUV. (See Motor Trend's video) U.S. sales chief Don Esmond noted that the company had sold more than 170,000 hybrids in 2006.
"Hybrid" is a generic name for the gas engine/electric motor power-plants that Toyota has pioneered in the last decade. It's a more successful name for Toyota than Five Hundred/Freestyle/Montego -- or whatever you call them -- is for Ford.
And the renamed, face-lifted Fords will have to do very well to catch Toyota and Lexus hybrids this year. The Japanese automaker expects to sell more than a quarter-million of 'em in '07.
But any success for the Fords ought not to be attributed to marketing. The three-bar grille facelift on the Taurus and Taurus X make them look sleeker than the dowdy Five Hundred and Freestyle. And the new 3.5-liter V-6 provides much needed extra power versus the old 3.0-liter. Also, Ford moved the engines off the front subframe mount, and farther back on the frame, allowing more freedom to tweak the front suspension.
To compete against crossovers like the Taurus X, Toyota offers its 2008 Highlander, due in showrooms in July (The hybrid version launches in September).
The Highlander is three inches wider and nearly four inches longer, with an extra inch of ground clearance and three inches of wheelbase compared to the 2003-07 model. It's better looking, too, like a bigger RAV4, and it gets a new, 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.
It comes with a bevy of new standard safety equipment, including seven airbags. The '08 model is 300 to 400 pounds heavier than the old Highlander, and yet Toyota claims fuel economy will be virtually unchanged (If you count economy using today's EPA testing procedures. A new '08 test will seriously lower every car and truck's official estimated fuel economy.)
Consumers might have trouble remembering the names of Ford's sedans and crossovers, but they have no problem thinking about fuel economy, and equating "hybrid" with Toyota.
Redefining the 'lunch truck'
The Chicago Auto Show traditionally is as much about trucks as cars. Last year, for instance, Toyota unveiled its critically important Tundra here.
Chrysler continued the Chicago truck tradition today by unveiling its revised 2008 Dodge Dakota pickup and its new medium- and heavy-duty pickups for commercial fleets. Chrysler's product development chief Frank Klegon probably spent more time than he needed for this consumer crowd on the details of the commercial trucks, a very specific market that the general audience pays little attention to and understands even less.
Still, Chrysler did what it could with the subject, creating a set with construction equipment and distributing press kits in a simple, black lunch bucket. Lunch was delivered on pallets hauled by a Dakota truck and the side of bagged chips poured from the back of a commercial dump truck.
Taurus name game
Ford announced today that it will revive the Taurus name and apply it to the 2008 version of the Ford Five Hundred and that the revised Mercury Montego will be renamed the Sable. The Ford Freestyle crossover, also freshened for 2008, will become the Ford Taurus X.
During a Chicago Auto Show interview, Ford's President of the Americas Mark Fields admitted Ford made a mistake ditching the Taurus name, which is recognized by 80 percent of consumers. Of the seven million Tauruses that were sold, more than 3.5 million are still on the road today.
Fields said it would take many years and millions of dollars to build new brand names to the level of the Taurus and Sable, with no guaranteed success. Still, there's no guaranteed success in reverting to the classic names either. Will consumers associate the new Taurus with the original trend-setting Taurus of the 1980s -- or will they remember the more recent Taurus, which Ford neglected to keep competitive in the marketplace?
Hooray for Saturn! The domestic "import" brand finally has a compact car to compete with the cream of the compact car crop.
The Saturn Astra, the latest vehicle in Saturn's new product onslaught, will reach North America in the fourth quarter of 2007 and is sure to resonate with consumers. When it is released, consumers won't be able to find a vehicle in Saturn showrooms older than 20 months. How's that for fresh product?
The compact car segment has been on a tear the last couple of years, powered by high gas prices and slick new models offering features previously available only on larger cars. The Astra offers high content, good gas mileage and European styling, because, well, it comes from Europe.
It's a solid new entry into the compact car segment and should stack up well against its Korean and Japanese competition. The snazzy four-door Astra in particular should take a bite out of Mazda's zoom-zoom Mazda3 Wagon sales.
No news yet on what pricing will be like, but I'd expect it to start in the low to mid-teens.
Sweet home Chicago
I have an image for you. Two men in black suits wearing dark sunglasses. Does a certain movie come to mind? No...not "Men in Black." I'm talking the true cult classic, "The Blues Brothers". And the lyrics from their classic "Sweet Home Chicago" jumped to mind as I strolled the windy (and frigid) streets tonight after dinner. (Deep dish pizza at Gino's East.what else?)
"Well, one and one is two.
Six and two is eight.
Come on baby don't ya make me late!
Baby don't you wanna go.
Back to that same old place.
Sweet home Chicago."
It is time for Chicago Auto Show 2007, and, just like in the song, the numbers are at the top of my mind. January's Industry sales numbers were, on average, not inspiring. Take January's results as "average" for the upcoming year, and we're on track for a mildly disappointing 2007.
But the Chicago show always helps put things into perspective. Maybe it's a result of the massive halls of McCormick Place, but this show always reminds me of the size and scope of the U.S. market.
For example, the Ford Five Hundred sedan has been a disappointment since hitting the streets in late 2004. Released in time for self-declared "Year of the Car," it has not caught the imagination or checkbooks of Ford's expected audience. However, a quick glance at last year's numbers shows that almost 85,000 were sold. Over 1,600 per week in 2006. More than 230 per day. And since Ford unveiled the updated Five Hundred (shown here) at the Detroit Auto Show last month, today's rumor is that the venerable name "Taurus" is to be resurrected and hopefully breathe new life into the almost new car.
This will not be the biggest news from this show, but for me, it highlights what the Chicago show represents. It's an all-business affair.
No high-horsepower exotics or high-tech hybrid or high-style concepts will break cover at this show. Instead, we get to glimpse the purchasing power of today's U.S. buyer and how important each and every sale will be in this increasingly competitive and volatile marketplace.
Saturn Astra, Toyota Highlander, Pontiac G8, Scion xB, Nissan Titan, Armada and Pathfinder. None of these Chicago debuts will ignite wild passion, but their builders are counting on each and every one of them to pull finicky buyers into their showroom in 2007 and beyond.
In Sweet Home Chicago, it will be all about the numbers.
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