For Ford, deciding to quit building sedans was easy.
Demand and prices for cars like the Taurus and Fusion is falling, with no end in sight. Choosing to sell something else isn’t the kind of insight that gets you a Nobel for economics.
Now comes the tough part: Creating new SUV-type vehicles that will outperform the Taurus, Fusion, Focus and Fiesta in sales, profits and production.
Nearly every automaker faces this challenge as the market moves toward SUVs, but none more immediately than Ford, which allowed its car lineup to become the oldest in the industry at the same time buyers’ interest in sedans flagged.
“This is a step in the automobile’s evolution,” design consultant and former GM design chief Ed Welburn said. “Coupes were the rage for decades. That transitioned to sedans and now crossovers.” Many industry insiders use the term “crossover” for SUVs not engineered for off-road use or heavy towing.
The race is on to design and develop the vehicles that replace Ford’s plodding sedans. Even inside the company, few people know what’s next.
If you think the answer is more Expeditions, Explorers and Escapes, you’re wrong. The new vehicles must look and feel significantly different from what Ford sells today.
“Ford, more than any other brand, is a truck brand — a pickup truck brand,” said Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs.
“Consumers don’t think of Ford as an SUV brand much more than they think of it as a car brand. Ford car owners, after they have shopped Ford cars, go to the Honda CR-V before they look at Ford utilities. If Ford is to move its current car buyers to its SUVs or something else, it has some work to do.”
Here’s what we know about Ford’s plan:
• Ford divides its future SUVs into two types: “urban utilities” that will never go off-road, and more rugged SUVs like the upcoming Bronco that can hit the trail and compete with brands including Jeep and Land Rover.
• Ford will replace its sedans with vehicles that are taller, more upright and have more ground clearance. Think models like the Kia Soul, Honda Element and Subaru Outback.
• Ford is developing an offroad SUV smaller than the Bronco.
• The Chinese-made Focus Active will have Focus looks, but more ground clearance, a higher roof and SUV-style profile when it goes on sale in mid-2019.
• Ford will use lightweight materials, hybrids and electric vehicles to boost fuel economy
• Ford will have the same number of models in 2020 as today. In addition to the Bronco and smaller offroad SUV, that suggests one or two more SUVs slotting into the space the Fusion and Taurus occupy.
• The subcompact Ecosport will anchor the bottom of the lineup until Ford develops a new vehicle to compete with the Honda HR-V, Nissan Rogue Sport and Chevrolet Trax.
• The Taurus, Fusion and Fiesta accounted for 296,748 sales in 2017. To call the new strategy a success, Ford should sell at least that many of the new vehicles _ at higher prices than its cars get today.
• Ford expects SUVs to account for 50 percent of North American vehicle sales by 2020. With pickups and vans around 20 percent, that leaves sedans, coupes, convertibles and sports cars to fight over just 30 percent of the market, down from about half a few years ago.
Fiat Chrysler crossed this bridge two years ago when CEO Sergio Marchionne said the company would stop building the midsize Chrysler 200 and compact Dodge Dart sedans to concentrate on pickups and SUVs.
FCA hasn’t looked back, but it had two advantages Ford lacks: The Jeep brand’s strong image and the ability to give high-volume vehicles luxurious interiors, as demonstrated by the Ram pickup.
“Ford’s going to have to come up with some really exciting ways to crease their sheet metal to make the new SUVs look different and exciting,” said Joe Phillippi, principal of analyst Autotrends.
Appealing interiors and simple controls for entertainment systems and smartphones will also be important, Phillippi added.
“The genius is the person who figures out what’s next,” Welburn said. “SUVs will evolve. Some will be sportier. Others will be lower and easier for the aging and people with disabilities to get in and out.”
At the same time, it’s risky to stretch the envelope too far, product development consultant Eric Noble of the Carlab said.
“The SUV formula has been around for 100 years because it works: a command seating position, lots of passenger and cargo space. If you cross the line and make the vehicle too round, you reach a point where the utility is gone. That’s when you lose the customer.
“Ford needs to replace 300,000 sales a year. They’re not going to do that with nichey, car-like SUVs.”
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.