29 June 2009

No Bull: Mulally Plans For A New Taurus Rising

Story from the Wall Street Journal

Ford Motor Co. is launching a revamped Taurus this summer, a big bet by Chief Executive Alan Mulally that he can revive an ailing model that once defined the American family sedan.

In late 2006, Mr. Mulally took Ford's helm in part because of his respect for the onetime success of the Taurus. But Mr. Mulally was shocked, he said, that the company had decided to pull the plug on the brand by the time he arrived, and he quickly reversed the move.

"I have a personal interest in this car," Mr. Mulally said in an interview. He added that he had been impressed with the Taurus product-development team when he met its members while working at Boeing Co. in the 1980s. "It was the flagship then, and it's the flagship now."

The revamped Taurus is set to go on sale in August. On the outside is a sleeker, more muscular design, while on the inside it offers an array of technological options, from cruise control that adapts to traffic to a collision warning system to a voice-activated entertainment setup.

"It's a proof-point of the new Ford," Mr. Mulally said. Ford will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the new Taurus, from its design to marketing and ads, said a person familiar with the matter.

But analysts say it's highly unlikely the Taurus will be as big a hit as the original version, which once was the most successful Ford car and at its peak sold more than 400,000 copies a year.

Analysts say the new Taurus is too expensive to attract a mass market, especially in the current economic climate. Prices start at $25,995 but can top $40,000 for a loaded version. That's more than the large-car segment's leader, the Chevrolet Impala from General Motors Corp. Others about the same size include Toyota Motor Corp.'s Avalon and the Chrysler 300 from Chrysler Group LLC.

With memories of high gas prices still in consumers' minds, this also could be a tough time to persuade U.S. buyers to purchase a large, heavy sedan.

And Ford must convince customers that the revamped Taurus isn't the same vehicle as the bland sedan once encountered at airport rental lots.

"I think Ford is chasing the original Taurus fans with this car, all of which are much older than when that car was at its peak," said Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Edmunds.com, an auto-sales Web site. "The new model seems more like a Ford Town Car targeted at 45-plus drivers rather than a high-volume family sedan."

When Taurus debuted in December 1985, there was nothing like it from a U.S. maker. Building on Ford's recent success with aerodynamic design in Europe, the Taurus made slick styling available at an affordable price.

"This was an American sedan that felt European," said John Wolknowicz, a former product planner at Ford who now is an automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm.

In 1996, faced with redesigning the Taurus, Ford product planners hung a big sign -- "Beat Camry" -- in their studios and engineering spaces, targeting Toyota's hugely successful sedan. But Mr. Wolknowicz said the strategy meant the cost of the restyled Taurus "escalated to the moon," putting it out of the reach of many.

The 1996 Taurus used Ford's blue oval logo as a motif, replicating it in the shape of the rear window, interior controls and exterior design. But critics panned the look -- Mr. Mulally called it "a football" -- as did many customers. Families also gravitated to sport-utility vehicles.

Ford's branding further muddied the matter. In 2004, Ford came out with what was supposed to be Taurus's replacement but called it the Five Hundred. The company kept selling the old-style Taurus as well, marketing it only to rental and corporate fleets. A few years later, under Mr. Mulally, Ford reverted to the Taurus name for the Five Hundred.

The new Taurus could be aided by the fact that its main competitors, the Impala and Chrysler 300, are aging and their parents are financially strapped.

While some analysts forecast up to 120,000 Taurus sales a year, Jim Farley, Ford's global vice president of sales and marketing, said the company expects only an increase from the outgoing model, which had sales of 52,667 in 2008.

"We have humble expectations," Mr. Farley said.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

That sure is one very nice car

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