Forget Cost Cuts, Where's the Product, Ford

January 22, 2006
Most of the the attention about Ford's "Way Forward" plan has focused on the anticipated plant closings, job cuts and overall cost-cutting. But Ford executives also have been hinting that the turnaround plan will include some insight into the company's future product plans. Up until now, and with the rare exception of the likes of the Mustang or Fusion, Ford's product plans haven't exactly impressed anyone, especially customers. So the company continues to lose ground in segments where it once had a solid foothold -- such as minivans and small trucks.

Only last week there was a flurry of stories that Ford was getting out of the minivan segments. Ford officials, starting with Ford President Jim Padilla, have insisted it isn't true and a Friday piece in the Detroit Free Press by their auto critic Mark Phelan suggested Ford intends to reinvent the minivan concept. That’s not out of line with past comments from folks like design director J Mays, who was particularly proud of the 2005 “people-mover concept,” the Fairlane.

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A minivan renewal would address only one of the segments Ford needs to become a serious player again. It also must come up with a new rear-drive platform, especially for Lincoln. The company's current rear-wheel-drive platform actually dates back to Lee Iacocca's days at Ford. Ford also has to come up with a replacement – or, more accurately -- several replacements for its dowdy Ford Focus. How about the more technically sophisticated European version, or even the striking segment-buster, the C-Max, which again is sold only in Europe?

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Ford apparently has begun looking for answers. At least that’s what analysts who’ve had an inside track on company plans are hinting. One tells TheCarConnection that he believes Ford is thinking about building a compact pickup truck on the same assembly lines used for the F150. It would be a great way to revitalize the Ranger segment while proving just how well Ford’s push for flexible manufacturing really works. Clearly, Ford needs to cut costs, but like GM it also has to dust off its product plans in segments it neglected over the last decade or more.

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