Ford's new line goes further, but how far?

Wed, Sep 12, 2012, 01:00

HOW DO YOU feel about a 1-litre petrol-powered Mondeo? What about a dinky little city car dressed up as an SUV? And would you ever consider Ford a tech firm?

Given that the company is forecasting a $1 billion (€782 million) loss from its European operations this year, a visit by the chief executive might suggest the knives are out.

Yet instead of wielding his downsizing machete – which still might be unsheathed in the coming months – Alan Mulally is still determined to roll out a host of new models for our stagnant European market, hoping that by bursting a few motoring preconceptions over the next 18 months he might also generate renewed interest in the brand and renewed profits.

In keeping with its love of cheesy slogans, the latest wave of change is entitled “Go further”.

There must be a dedicated department within Ford’s world headquarters, at Dearborn, Michigan, tasked with churning out trite two-word tag lines for the firm’s monthly new initiative. This time, however, there appears to be some substance behind the slogan.

Last week, at a cavernous convention centre next to Ajax football stadium, in Amsterdam, senior executives unveiled the firm’s future plans for Europe. In front of an audience of 1,500 – a mix of dealers and journalists – and 100,000 or so employees and analysts watching online, Mulally introduced a fleet of new models designed to keep Ford in the race against the likes of VW and Toyota.

The new Mondeo is a major statement of intent as Ford tries to push its family saloon closer to premium rivals. It’s a longer, sleeker car than the current model, similar in its profile to the latest Jaguar XJ.

It’s a striking new car, and its bold front grille and slim headlights set off a new design language that will feature on Ford models over the next few years.

The styling will not be the main talking point on forecourts, however: instead it will be the idea that the car will be offered with the firm’s incredible 1-litre three-cylinder petrol engine as one of the power-train options.

That’s a mind-boggling move for most buyers, who equate power to engine size. This new power train has already turned tradition on its head in the Focus range and will do the same to the family-car market. It’s as powerful as a 1.6-litre petrol but far more frugal.

Alongside an array of other diesel and petrol engines, the new Mondeo range will also feature a plug-in hybrid version.

The new Mondeo will not go on sale in Ireland until the end of next year. A much earlier arrival is the updated Fiesta, complete with a new-look front nose and new technology. As to the styling revisions, chief exterior designer Stefan Lamm says the larger grille makes the car look “more luxurious”. But while the slim headlamps are a nice touch, the grille looks too big for the supermini.

The engine line-up has been changed, with several sub-100g/km versions on offer, including the aforementioned 1-litre petrol power train, putting out 65bhp or 85bhp in the Fiesta.

New technology for the car includes Sync, a voice-activated in-car connectivity system, and Active City Stop, a system designed to help drivers avoid low-speed collisions. The Sync system includes emergency assistance, which directly connects to local emergency-service operators after a crash.

The Fiesta will also feature the European debut of Ford’s MyKey system, which will allow owners to configure maximum speed and audio-volume limits in the car.

Aimed at parents who allow their newly licensed children to drive the car, it allows owners to programme the car so that when the spare key is used, the audio is mute until seat belts are fastened, and a maximum speed of 140km/h or 160km/h can be set.

Ford wants to use these technological additions to demonstrate it’s as much a tech firm these days as a metal basher. And therein lies the challenge: the reality is that car firms cannot compete with the tech giants in Silicon Valley but need to work with them to ensure cars can at least keep abreast of the high-speed advances in the communications and infotainment sectors.

According to Raj Nair, Ford’s head of global product development, the brand needs to be “device agnostic” when it comes to letting owners sync their mobile devices seamlessly with their cars, while offering world firsts in safety and driving aids for a consumer audience whose attention span flits from the new Nokia one week to the latest iPhone the next. When the latest gadgets have shelf-lives of barely a year, it’s a daunting task to create a new car that’s expected to stay fresh on the forecourt for at least four or five years.

Other models coming down the track include the EcoSport, a dinky little supermini-SUV with a small wheel attached to the rear door to make it look rugged. On sale already in South America, it bears some resemblance to the Daihatsu Terios of years past – and seems just about as practical. The EcoSport arrives in Ireland in January.

Far more tempting news is that the US-built Ford Edge crossover is coming to Europe, along with the next-generation Mustang. The Edge was the car that revamped Ford’s quality image in the US market as it struggled for survival back in 2006, and it’s still one of the smartest-looking crossovers on the US forecourts. As for the Mustang, it might be some time before we actually see them at Ford dealers here, but executives promise they are on the way.

While the financial message may seem to be the same – losses, future cutbacks, concerns about the European economy and oversupply of new cars – in terms of Ford’s new metal, big changes are on the way.

While these “go further” than turnaround plans from the past, with yet another year of losses and an industry overcapacity in Europe estimated at 40 per cent, it remains to be seen if they go far enough.

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