Ford hopes new ST-Line range will entice Irish drivers

Sporty line-up could help Ford clinch Irish sales crown in its 100th anniversary year

Ford’s new ST Line inclues Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo amongst others

Ford’s new ST Line inclues Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo amongst others

 

Henry Ford never said you could have a car in any colour you like, so long as it was black. It just happened that black enamel paint was the fastest-drying, so early Model Ts were painted in that shade to speed up the newfangled production line process. Eventually other colours were developed that dried just as quick, so you could have those too.

With so much apocrypha and myth swirling around Henry Ford, it’s a little difficult to imagine what he would have made of the modern-day company and cars that bear his name. After all, here was a man who shut down production and sales for almost a year to develop a new car – the Model A which, finally, replaced the Model T in 1927.

A decade before that, with Model T sales still building to a peak, Ford opened its first factory outside of North America, in Cork. Ford Ireland (more correctly known as Henry Ford & Son Ltd) was born and this year it celebrates its Irish centenary.

Seeking number one

And Henry wants his sales crown back. As the total shut-down to focus all energies on the new Model A was designed to win back buyers from Chevrolet and Chrysler, one can partially see the new ST-Line range as an attempt to bring Ford back to basics and win Irish buyers back from the likes of Toyota, Hyundai and Volkswagen.

ST-Line is a simple enough concept. Thanks to ballyhooing reviews of the mighty Focus RS and the less mighty, but darned fine fun Mustang, Ford has regained some of the sporting credibility that once it worked so hard to win, with legendary names and acronyms as DFV, Mexico, Cosworth and BDA.

The ST-Line range, which currently consists of Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo and Kuga, is designed to cash in on that history and currency of Ford’s sporting endeavours, much in the way that a diesel 3 Series with an M-Sport pack tries to link itself to the mighty 3.0 CSL racers and Brabham – BMW F1 cars of the 1970s and 1980s.

There’s no magic here, no 350hp turbo engines, nor 4WD GKN driveline – ST-Line status consists of a bodykit, lightly tuned suspension, some nice alloys, sports seats and steering wheel and some metal pedals. That’s it.

The engines are stock, so you don’t have to allow for extra insurance loadings, nor tax costs, nor even running costs. It’s precisely the same model as used by BMW for M-Sport or Mercedes for AMG-Line. Make it look sporty, even if it’s not, and the customers will come. ST-Line prices kick off at €21,350 for a Fiesta, €24,875 for a Focus, €34,295 for a Mondeo and €36,245 for a Kuga.

Performance plan

It seems to be working already. Ciarán McMahon, chairman and managing director of Ford in Ireland, told The Irish Times that “it’s about performance vehicles, we’ve hung our hat around the whole set of performance vehicles, starting last year with the Mustang and the Focus RS, and now a lot of those vehicles have high power outputs, and they look really good.

“So we wanted to create a half-way house, between a great-looking sports car, but not to have the huge horsepower so you could get average customers into that kind of car. You get the sporty looks and the dynamics, but you don’t get the running costs.

“There’s a niche there, and people want good-looking cars that they want to pay extra for, and that seems to be coming through more and more. We’re deleting entry level models with low spec, and moving people up the value chain.”

Vignale anyone?

Which raises an awkward question – what of Vignale? Ford’s putative luxury sub-brand hasn’t made much of dent on sales nor public consciousness yet, and the much more affordable ST-Line range seems like it might be a better fit for most Ford buyers, especially in Ireland.

“They’re completely different vehicles,” says McMahon.

“As far as Ford is concerned, Vignale stands for premium, luxury, style, not the sporty end of it. The ST-Line is looking at a completely different customer. The Vignale is at the luxury end of the market, and we are trying to tempt customers of BMW and Audi with it, so these two don’t really meet at all.

“We’ll be much more successful with the ST-Line range than we would do with Vignale at this point, it’s going to take a lot more momentum behind Vignale to grow that brand, whereas ST-Line we’ve previously had the ST and the RS, so they understand what it is, they come on board a lot quicker.”

ST the answer

It certainly seems like a much better natural fit for Ford. The Mondeo, in ST-Line trim, looks pleasingly muscular and rather handsome – as a Vignale it just looks over-baked, possibly over-egged. Inside, while shorn of the Vignale’s pretensions of extra leather and chrome, the simpler sports seats make the ST-Line actually more comfortable than its posher brother (although you do still sit too high) and the whole thing feels more honest.

To drive it feels a touch unsure of itself – no current generation Mondeo has yet lived up to the handling prowess of its forebears, but it’s pleasant enough with a gentle ride quality even net of the sports suspension, and a lovely balance to the steering.

Only the 180hp diesel engine continues to disappoint – it just never feels as muscular as it promises and so you’d in all honesty be better off with the 150hp. (Footnote; at last, Ford has seen sense and added a digital speedo to the Mondeo’s fiddly multifunction instrument pack. Much better.)

Crossover changes

The Kuga, by contrast, feels transformed by ST-Line. Not dynamically perhaps, but the bodykit, the blacked-out alloys and the deep blue paint work of the car we sampled made a relatively humble Ford look and feel seriously upgraded.

BMW-good? Not far off, actually. It also feels more alert and sporty to drive than the languid Mondeo, with sharper steering, firmer suspension and a feeling of alertness and agility.

Finally, the Focus with the 2.0-litre TDCI engine (which precious few buyers will pick above the more affordable 1.5) feels like a minor hooligan. It’s firm and springy, a touch raucous and the cabin still looks and feels too cheap to compete with the VW Golf. But with a solid hit of 370Nm of torque, and that sublime, fulsome steering common to all Focus models, it feels closest to living up to the ST badge.

Will some sporty models be enough to take back the number one sales spot for Ford in 2017, though? “It’s something we’re looking at, obviously” McMahon told The Irish Times.

“In January we were only 200 units behind, so very close. We’ve been growing our car sales share for the past two years, whereas prior to that it had been falling for about seven years. We’ve a lot more freshness in our line-up now, and some of the car lines are working really well for us in the market, such as Kuga where we’ve really driven volume. So I’m hopeful. It’s a long road, but I have my fingers crossed.”