Ford Turns to the Midsize Car to Challenge Japan
Published: January 9, 2012
DETROIT - It's rare for an auto company to undertake a total makeover of one of its best-selling models, from the styling to the seats to the selection of engines.
Fusion ranked third in sales among all cars in the United
States last year. Yet virtually everything was changed on the version
that goes on sale later this year - even how the "blue oval" Ford badge
was embedded into the hood of the car.
That attention to detail surprised even William Clay Ford Jr., the company's executive chairman. "At first, I thought the blue oval was off-center or something," Mr. Ford said in an interview. "But it's actually quite beautiful."
The new look is just one aspect of Ford's all-out bid to gain share in the competitive midsize car segment dominated in recent decades by the Japanese automakers. To further differentiate the Fusion, the company will offer four engine options, including a plug-in hybrid it promotes as the most fuel-efficient family sedan in the world.
The revamped Fusion underscores just how hard Detroit's automakers are pushing to solidify their turnarounds with improved passenger cars. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler accounted for 60 percent of trucks and S.U.V.'s sold in the United States in 2011 and make most of their profits from bigger vehicles. But they still have only about one-third of the car market.
That could change if their Detroit show models attract new customers. Besides Ford's Fusion, G.M. will reveal a new small Cadillac, as well as its own contender in the midsize market, the restyled Chevrolet Malibu. Chrysler plans to show the compact Dodge Dart, which is built off of a vehicle platform developed by Fiat, its Italian parent company.
With Toyota and Honda struggling to recover from last year's earthquake-related supply disruptions, the conditions are ripe for the American companies.
"With the Japanese in a bit of a bind, the time is now for Detroit to conquest new customers," said Joseph Phillippi, an analyst with the consulting firm Auto Trends.
Both G.M. and Ford have made big gains in the small-car market with new products like the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus, part of their effort to meet new fuel standards as well as attract people to showrooms. Now they are focusing on the midsize segment, long the stronghold of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The Camry was still the top seller in the segment last year, followed by the Nissan Altima and the Fusion. But models from the Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia are steadily gaining share, and the German carmaker Volkswagen is gearing up for more production of its midsize entries.
Honda plans to show a concept version of a new Accord at the Detroit show. But most of the attention will center on the Fusion, which promises to shatter the old Detroit stereotype of bland, middle-of-the-road passenger cars.
The Fusion is the latest Ford car to be overhauled for sale in a variety of global markets, following the Focus and the subcompact Fiesta. Development of the new Fusion began four years ago, just when Ford and the other Detroit companies were spiraling into financial crises which led G.M. and Chrysler into government-sponsored bankruptcies.
At the time, Ford was determined to invest heavily in new, fuel-efficient cars despite the company's mounting losses. "Even in the dark days, we decided to keep investing," Mr. Ford said.
Ford's chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, urged the design and engineering team to reinvent the Fusion rather than simply update it. Traditionally, the Detroit companies often settled for incremental improvements, particularly on the design side.
They were hardly alone in that regard. Toyota, for example, had stellar success with the Camry year after year without changing its basic styling. "Detroit looked at the competition and saw that the plain, white-bread look was what worked," said Mr. Phillippi.
Yet the Ford team was urged by management to wipe the slate clean for the new Fusion. It was not an easy call. "You can start with a clean sheet of paper, and still screw it up," Mr. Ford said.
The exterior design staff was headed by Chris Hamilton, a 43-year-old Briton who had spent most of his career in Europe. His team interviewed consumers from the United States, Europe, China and Australia to get ideas.
"We didn't look at the midsize car as just a boring segment," Mr. Hamilton said. "We looked at it as an opportunity to create a beautiful product."
What they ended up with was a muscular-looking, four-door sedan that stands apart from the midsize crowd. And with its trapezoidal grille, elongated headlamps, and sculptured trunk lid, the new Fusion looks nothing like the current model.
During a preview of the car at Ford's design studio, Mr. Hamilton stressed the changes, both big and small. Chrome accents on the body panels are slimmer than before, and side mirrors are mounted on the doors to allow for larger windows. The roof was stretched and sloped to create a sleeker silhouette. And instead of attaching a standard-issue blue oval badge onto the hood, a slightly smaller emblem was designed and integrated into the sheet metal.
"The proportions are everything," Mr. Hamilton said. "We want this car to look expensive, even if it isn't."
Ford has not announced any prices for the new Fusion, except to say they will be comparable to the current model, which ranges from about $20,000 to $30,000.
There are more changes in the interior of the car, like lighter-weight seats and an unusual center console supported by pillars rather than layers of hard plastic. In addition to a voice-activated communications and navigation system, the Fusion also has sensors that detect when the car gets too close to other vehicles or is straying into other lanes of traffic.
Ford will offer two, four-liter engines in the Fusion that can achieve 37 miles a gallon in highway driving. It also has a hybrid gas-electric model, and the first plug-in hybrid available in the midsize segment. While it has not yet been rated by federal regulators, Ford expects the plug-in to deliver the electrified-vehicle equivalent of more than 100 miles a gallon.
Its striking new design will attract potential buyers, but the technology and fuel-efficiency are critical to the Fusion's success in the long-run, said James D. Farley Jr., Ford's head of sales and marketing.
"The family sedan is still the heart and soul of the American garage,"
Mr. Farley said. "The design is so evocative that it invites customers
to look beyond the surface to our quality and our fuel economy."
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