Is Mercury in Ford’s Future?

2003 Mercury Marauder (5/20/2002)

Is there a Mercury in Ford’s future? That’s been the subject of an ongoing debate, both inside and outside Ford, but for the moment, at least, the division’s future seems more secure than it has in years, with an assortment of new products scheduled for introduction by mid-decade.

Mercury still faces plenty of challenges, however. The Ford division continues struggling to come up with a clear identity—what insiders like to call a “brand DNA”—that can distinguish it from the competition. Even with a broader mix of cars and light trucks, that will be critical if Mercury hopes to win over a new generation of buyers who seldom even put the brand on their shopping list.

A number of nameplates have vanished over the years, some well known like Plymouth; others like Chrysler’s struggling Eagle brand were virtual unknowns. General Motors spent a decade desperately struggling to reverse the lagging fortunes of long-popular Oldsmobile before reluctantly culling it from the lineup.

Phaseout dropped

At Ford, the debate over Mercury has been intense but three years ago, former Ford CEO Jac Nasser was ready to seal the division’s fate, rolling out a strategy that would slowly phase Mercury out. It was a controversial decision since Mercury remained profitable and helped prop up the luxury Lincoln marque. But Nasser felt Mercury would wither away, much like Oldsmobile, draining precious cash and engineering resources in the process.

The division did have one key proponent, Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. He made Mercury a personal campaign, especially after Nasser’s ouster last summer. The timing, however, couldn’t have been worse. With Ford facing massive losses and struggling to fund even key product programs, there was no money left to prop up Mercury without a sound business plan that could pay for itself.

The proposal new Mercury chief Brian Kelley has laid out promises to do just that. And it has won the division the reprieve it has desperately sought. It is, Kelley stresses, to be a product-led revival.

“From a product plan, what the vehicles are, what segments they’ll play in and what powertrains they will use, that’s 80 percent in place,” says the man who’ll have to translate the plan into product, Mercury vehicle development “czar” Al Kammerer. What’s still not clear, he acknowledges, is the brand imaging, which “will affect the design of the product, the materials we select and some of the price positioning, as well as content levels.”

At this point, though, Mercury is expected to have at least seven different vehicles in its line-up by mid-decade—the precise number depending on whether you count low-volume variants. The tally will include the current Mountaineer and full-size Grand Marquis, as well as the Marauder, a performance-oriented spin-off of the big sedan. Add to the list several replacement models, including a minivan designed to fill the gap left by the outgoing Villager, and a new mid-size sedan updating the aged Sable. There’s also a new subcompact crossover vehicle coming, which will be based off the same platform as the Ford Escape. Final production plans have yet to be locked in place. While it may be built at a plant in St. Louis, it’s more likely to go into the Ford factory in Avon Lake, Ohio.

There are two more products that have recently been added to the Mercury lineup, at least one of them a light truck crossover, TheCarConnection has learned, though specifics are being kept a closely guarded secret.

Tough battles

Mercury officials lost one tough battle, and will not get a U.S. version of Europe’s second-generation Mondeo, a compact sedan. An early version, dubbed the Mercury Mystique, didn’t sell well, but division insiders had argued the newer model—well-received overseas—would do far better in the States.

Several factors worked against bringing the Mondeo to the U.S., including potential exchange rate issues. There was also concern that importing a car from Europe could anger the United Autoworkers Union, which has yet to agree to Ford’s plans to cut costs by closing several American assembly lines.

Precisely what Mercury will stand for is still under debate, though Steve Babcock, a marketing planner assigned to the Marauder project suggests the new car offers a hint of what’s to come. Adds Kammerer, Mercury aims to become “a fun brand. We’ll do fun things, though the core of the brand won’t be muscle cars.”

The Marauder provides a clue as to one significant visual change. In recent years, Mercury has used a stylized “M” as its logo. Meant to represent highway lanes, the symbolism has admittedly been lost on most consumers.

Though the emblem is still used on the rear of the new Marauder, the Grand Marquis spin-off also revives the so-called “godhead,” the profile of Mercury, the Roman god of speed. It can be found in several places on the new sedan, including the center of the alloy wheels. Variations of that theme were used during most of the division’s three-quarter century history, and there are many inside the company who’re hoping to see the godhead return as part of Mercury’s nascent revival.

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