No prize for guessing that the Edge is going to join the Ford lineup, the surprise is the timing. NZ boss Simon Rutherford discusses this, his brand’s heavy reliance on Ranger and how long Mustang can keep its mojo.
CONVICTION the wagon and one-tonne sports utility sectors will continue to strengthen and ultimately dominate the vehicle buying scene won’t encourage Ford here to abdicate sagging passenger lines.
This from Ford New Zealand managing director Simon Rutherford, who in confirming an open secret - that the Edge medium-sized sports utility will be offered here, but not until 2018, thus leaving a year-long gap in the large SUV portfolio – also said the Focus, Fiesta and Mondeo will stay on the books, with efforts under way to improve their status.
The Briton is forecasting that by the time the chunky-looking Mondeo-derived Edge, picked by MotoringNetwork back in May (Ford NZ on Edge about next SUV choice) as a local market certainty, comes into place, SUVs will be overtaking passenger cars as the top-selling vehicle type in local showrooms.
He also anticipates one-tonne utes – the category that the Ranger already dominates – that are already often chosen, in diesel auto doublecab format, as SUV wagon substitutes will have probably also gained more ground.
Even so, Rutherford, who since taking charge on January 1 has seen Ranger achieve up to 70 percent of monthly Ford volume – and occasionally achieve as the country’s top-selling model - reckons there will be ongoing demand for wholly road-focused passenger lines.
“At the end of the day the customers will ultimately dictate what they want.
“The industry is definitely tipping into the SUV arena from the top, the bottom, the left and the right and what we are finding is that consumers are not only coming out of passenger but they are also rotating within SUV, so they might have a full-size then go into a mid-size when they have become empty nesters.”
Even so, that wouldn’t spell a death knell to orthodox cars.
“I don’t think so, no. From my point of view one of the areas that we are focused on is building awareness and making sure people understand our full passenger range, of which SUV is a part.”
Although this has been a record year for vehicle sales, and Ford is running near the top, he agrees some passenger models have not received all the attention they deserve, with quirky outcome: Two months ago, the Mustang was the brand's top-selling passenger car. That doesn't even happen in the US nowadays.
Focus has been a good example; while it was currently in third spot within the C-car category it ended last year in sixth, so more work to raise its stature became a priority.
“We are not buying any rental business or anything like that … it’s making sure we are giving the product the attention it deserves … I think SUVs will continue to grow (yet) there are plenty of segments still in passenger … the C-segment is still a sizeable segment and will continue to be so for a while.”
Edge is physically smaller than Territory and offers five rather than seven seats in right-hand-drive format (though China has a seven-seater). Ford is not outright touting it as a replacement, though there does seem to be suggestion it might rename as such.
There is no clear explanation why it will not come for another two years, though Ford Australia is hinting at variables such as the constraints of a global company and preparing the ground for local adoption.
Rutherford has said he is stockpiling Territory supply in hope of keeping around until mid-2017. That plan is based on the model, which in already being 12-years old and based off the EA Falcon is already looking creaky, maintaining a current monthly sales rate of about 50 units a month. That’s equal to the sale pace for the much more modern Ranger-spun Everest that, being costlier and far more off-road attuned, perhaps draws a different crowd.
With Edge so far away, further details - the exact launch period, in what specification, drivetrain formats and how much – are not being shared yet.
“Really what we are doing at this stage is merely saying that it is coming … our launch is not until 2018 and at the moment we have good supply of Territory that we will manage to run-out in the middle of next year.
“We don’t have an exact launch date (of Edge) available. There will be a little bit of a gap, but we are making sure that we have Territory availability for as long as possible. We’re still producing vehicles until October.”
Rutherford says Edge sourcing is open to question – it’ll be North America but perhaps not the plant in Canada that presently has sole responsibility for right-hand-drive production, presently sent solely to the United Kingdom.
Ford’s SUV/crossover strategy also reaches to EcoSport and Kuga, respectively spun from the Fiesta and the Focus. Updates of both are en route, with the India-sourced EcoSport (below) being attended to first. It takes retuned suspension, a revised interior and the spare wheel is plucked from the rear door and placed underneath; potentially, too, it might pick up Ford's excellent three-cylinder turbocharged one litre petrol. The updates are a long time coming; they've been seen in England for almost a year. So why has it taken so long to come here, not least when the current car has achieved lacklustre success?
Says Rutherford: “It’s really just been a changeover in terms of managing the (model) cycle plans for all the specific content we need in the market.” Plus, he confirms, Europe/UK had first dibs.
The refreshed Kuga was shown in what appeared to be production-ready form at the Detroit motor show in January and Rutherford reckons this car – which will break new ground by presenting in front- and well as four-wheel-drive in the volume Trend format - and Focus, have potential to be 2017’s biggest sellers for Ford, though potentially Ranger will also keep on holding centre stage.
Ranger’s mastery is considered a dangerous situation by rival brands, who suggest it is not healthy for just one vehicle to achieve such dominance, but Rutherford says he is relaxed, though he does confess to be keen to tilt the sales balance back toward other vehicles.
“Our segment share has been holding pretty steady since it became leader. At the back of my mind I know that we have other vehicles that have been overshadowed and they need their day in the sunshine.”
However, Ranger seems to be impossible to rein in: The sales count for July, received today, reflects that - 925 units is a stupendous count, not only making it (once again) the country's top selling model and ute sector leader but also setting a new light commercial record for that month (previously held by Toyota, with 847 Hilux registrations in 2014).
Ranger has been the kingpin for two years, and grew volume after being significantly refreshed in late 2015 with a number of new features, smart technologies and enhancements throughout and impending changes – adoption of the Sync3 infotainment system at the top end and addition of rear parking sensors and a rear view camera to the fleet-tuned XL, with a minimal increase in price – will in all likelihood keep it storming on.
Says Rutherford: “Ranger (count) is customers simply voting … they like the value, the look, the features, the style and the driving dynamics. We’re not going out and trying to do anything silly on it, we’re just making sure that we keep it refreshed … adding value and respecting the competition.
“But, yes, we do as a consequence need to keep making sure that our SUV and our passenger cars also get the attention they deserve.”
Rutherford was cautious is responding to conjecture that the ute sector, being volume-driven, has become especially susceptible to discounting and that Ford had to engage in that to maintain its counts. He also declined to comment on thought that profit margins earned from the one-tonner might not be as fat as that from cars, saying only that profit contribution on specific model lines obviously are different.
“We don’t really discuss the profits … on Ranger we have a view on what we have done to maintain our performance and we have not changed that … we don’t go out and buy a lot of business but you do have to active in the commercial segment.
“We could go and buy business if we wanted to on Ranger and we are not doing that, nor do not have any intention to do that. As we go forward margins do vary by product and I think it’s the same in the industry on a whole. We just have to act accordingly.”
He doubts the ute sector has reached peak, yet. “I think there’s still a little bit of room there.” He notes that a surprising count of Falcon owners are literally moving up. “Some might get a Mustang, one or two a Mondeo but actually the majority are going into utes .. I think there’s a lifestyle dynamic occurring. It means that Ranger is not only sold on the farm but it is also sold in the city, as a family car. It’s seen as being livable day to day.”
The other star performer this year is Mustang, belying that coupes are niche fare and boom and bust. Ford is certainly experiencing a boom and Rutherford suggests careful management might keep it from deflating.
“I think it is only sensible to understand that your initial wave of enthusiasts will only be there once, but we only take sold orders and we are still sold out through to February. One of the advntages is that customers have to place a firm order and place a deposit on it and we get a very good calibration of forward demand through that.
“I think it will temper a little bit but it should also hold steady for a good while.”
Finally, isn’t Ford here now kicking itself for not claiming dibs on Roush and Shelby distribution rights given the high uptake of the former’s performance parts and the unexpected availability of the latter in right-hand-drive?
“At the end of the day, when you look at that product our business is about partnerships. The route we have taken there is one I am comfortable with. We will continue to explore all new product opportunities that we think are good for the market (but) the work we have done with (rights’ holder) CTB on upgrade packs have worked well for us.”