2009 Ford Verve Concept

January 13, 2008

Is Ford Motor Co. finally ready to fill one of the biggest holes in its North American line-up? Actually, make that a small hole, as in the mini-compact model it desperately needs to draw in both “Millennial” buyers, as well as older motorists looking for basic, fuel-efficient transportation.

 

While the Verve, which debuts at this week’s Detroit Auto Show, is officially designated a “concept” car, there’s little doubt that this prototype is a close snapshot of what Ford plans to launch in 2010.

 

With Verve, Ford will launch its first true “world car” in more than a decade. The concept vehicle – and the production model to follow – have been jointly developed by Ford’s North American and European product development team.

 

Crisp and visually striking, the concept car stands in sharp contrast to the soft and generally maligned 2008 Focus sedan. Colored Rouge Red, Verve’s face features the large, three-bar grille that’s becoming a signature cue for Ford. Two distinctive LED side markers flank the front fascia.

 

An underlying design goal was to make the Verve look stylish, chic and sporty, rather than soft, flabby and cheap like the entry-level econoboxes of the past. The hood is sculpted to give it an athletic feel, the side profile seems energetic, with pillarless side windows. A panoramic glass roof keeps the small cabin from feeling claustrophobic. The high-mounted LED taillamps complete the sculpting of the overall package. Verve sits atop 18-inch 12-spoke, two-piece alloy wheels, something you normally wouldn’t expect in a car of this class.

 

The curvaceous interior, Ford designers explain, was influenced by “the world of fashion and cosmetics, with surprisingly rich materials displayed in an assortment of eye-popping colors. But looks are only part of the appeal

 

Talking talk to the "Millennials"

 

Technology is essential when you’re tatgeting Millennials, who grew up with chrome cellphones, rather than silver spoons, in their mouth.

 

In an unusual move, Ford designers “decoupled” the various elements of the Verve’s electronics package, separating its video screen, controls and the actual digital hardware. The result is an unusually ergonomic arrangement. Climate controls, for example, are clustered in a lozenge shape at the center of the stack. The primary gauges, meanwhile, are housed in a binocular-like tunnel.

 

The center console has a handy tray for holding a cellphone, which can be linked to the Verve’s Bluetooth hands-free system, or an MP3 player.

 

Ford isn’t saying much about the engine under Verve’s hood, other than calling it a “fuel-efficient I-4.” One possible option, at least in a high-line version of the car, would be a new EcoBoost powertrain. Using turbocharged direct injection, Ford’s new EcoBoost technology delivers V-6 levels of performance but significantly better mileage.

 

Two versions of Verve are being shown in Detroit, a three-door concept, primarily geared for Europe, as well as a four-door, more suited for the States. But that distinction could vanish.

 

“There’s been a significant shift” in thinking among the so-called Millennials, a massive group of potential customers just starting to enter the market, notes Ford’s marketing czar, Jim Farley. They’re much more “international about body styles,” and much more open than their parents to the hatchbacks popular everywhere, it seems, but the U.S.

 

Ford's late start

 

Ford has gotten a late start in wooing this potentially huge audience. Honda, Nissan and Toyota have already made massive inroads with their Fit, Versa and Yaris models. General Motors, meanwhile, has showed off several potential products designed to woo Millennials with a mix of style and upscale features. Collectively known as the “triplets,” they could make it into production even before Ford rolls out a production version of Verve.

 

While this new generation of customers may expect more than their parents, it’s as important as ever to woo them over, since someone buying an entry-level model, like Verve, will eventually move up into more expensive cars, trucks and crossovers.

 

“Millennials will be the defining group of customers in the future, driving all types of consumer trends,” stressed Farley.

 

By Ford’s estimates, about 11,000 Millennials come of driving age, in the U.S., every day. So, while the group may have collectively accounted for only 19 percent of American drivers in 2004, that will surge to 28 percent by 2010. Hitting a home run with Verve will likely be critical to the struggling Ford’s future.

 

It’s all the more important to score with an entry into this rapidly expanding product segment. Small vehicles, in general, are expected to account for nearly half the global market, with demand soaring in the so-called “B-car” segment. Even in the U.S., Ford projects, sales will jump by 25 percent between now and 2012, to about 3.4 million annually.

 

Developing a product for this segment has traditionally been a challenge, and was often a money-loser in the U.S. market. To keep costs in line, Ford has consolidated operations between American and European product development teams, notes product chief Derrick Kuzak.

 

“These concepts demonstrate how leveraging our global strengths can yield attractive benefits for our customers in markets around the world,” he explains.

 

Verve will be the first new world car, but quickly followed by a replacement for the larger Focus. By 2012, says Ford CEO Alan Mulally, virtually all Ford products will be developed on a global basis, but for those, like the F-Series pickups, for which demand is localized to specific markets.

 

2008 Detroit Auto Show Coverage by TCC Team (1/6/2008) Ford F-150, Hyundai Genesis and Corvette ZR1.

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