Ford gambling on taking Taurus upscale


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Ford's Taurus, a mainstay of the family car business since the mid-1980s, has been transformed into a flagship sports and entry-level luxury sedan for the upwardly mobile -- or at least that is how Ford officials hope the public will see the new 2010 model.

But industry analysts are split on whether Ford will be able to reposition the car from its market position as an everyday family car, and whether it should even try.

"If they are doing what it sounds like to me they are doing, and from what I have seen they are doing, they are taking a whole different approach, which can really backfire on them," said Kelly O'Keefe, managing director of the VCU Brand Center, graduate advertising school at Virginia Commonwealth University.

If the company wants the strategy to succeed, it must first make sure the core base of Taurus buyers is still with them, he said. "If you alienate your core audience, you're toast."

Independent automobile analyst Tom Libby thinks the new strategy just might work. "A very perceptive friend of mine told me that he thought the new Taurus would be a challenge to some low-end luxury models," he said.

Ford has had a lot of success with the Taurus, which was considered a groundbreaking American sedan when it was introduced in 1986. In its first decade, some 6.98 million were sold. From 1992 to 1996, it was the best selling car in the United States. Taurus remains the fifth-best selling nameplate in the company's history, with only the F-150, Escort, Model T and Mustang selling more vehicles.

In 2006, Ford abandoned the Taurus to make room for the Five Hundred, a roomy sedan that even came in all-wheel-drive versions but was plagued with dull styling and even duller road performance.

In 2008, new CEO Alan Mulally ordered the Taurus nameplate be brought back, this time on an upgraded version on the Five Hundred. Officials think the 2010 Taurus can move in a better class than before. During a media event, company officials drew comparisons to the Audi A6, Lexus GS 350 and Toyota Avalon.

The Lexus was the only competitor that had any of the "class exclusive technologies" that Ford is touting on the new Taurus: Both have adaptive cruise control and a collision warning with brake support system. Class exclusive technologies are those not found on competitive cars in the same market segment. Other Taurus features meant to attract buyers included a blind spot information system with cross traffic alert and a "My Key" system targeted at restricting speed, radio volume and other items for young drivers.

The Taurus SE starts at $25,995, the Limited model starts at $31,995 and the ultrahigh performance SHO starts at $37,995.

Amy Marentic, North American car and crossover planning manager for Ford, said there was plenty of marketing data to support the Taurus' repositioning.

"We found that sedans were becoming a reward for a job well done, as opposed to the quaint stereotype of a family sedan," she said.

Pei-wen Hsu, marketing manager for the Taurus, said the market niche in which Taurus has sold in the past is no longer a family sedan segment. Families today get crossovers or minivans and then move onto sedans.

Ms. Hsu said Ford did extensive research over a roughly 11/2-year period before deciding to move Taurus upscale. They did home visits and went through customers' closets. They looked at what customers wore and what their day-to-day routine looked like.

"We wanted to understand how do we bring this car to market and serve people who didn't just need the Taurus, but want it," she said.

Relying too heavily on focus groups can be a mistake, said Mr. O'Keefe. "There isn't a launch that car companies have done in 15 years where they didn't have focus groups saying that, 'It's going to work,'" he said. "But we all know the history about how well that's worked."

Customers may not buy into all the tinkering with the Taurus brand.

"The key to building brands is consistency, predictability and experience. If we go to Home Depot and it's totally different, we feel they've meddled with the brand.

We don't want car companies to change the fundamentals," Mr. O'Keefe said.

A common problem with domestic manufacturers, he said, is that the people who build cars get bored with their own nameplates.

"They have cars like Dodge Neon and Jeep Cherokee -- names with great strength -- and then they abandon them in favor of the Dodge Caliber, for instance, an inferior product. Then, when the new product and nameplate don't make it, they then have to start all over again trying to make that mental connection with customers."

Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book, thinks the consistency issue may mar efforts to reposition the Taurus. "I think Ford's lost some momentum in all the name changing going from Taurus, to Five Hundred and now back to Taurus," he said.

Meanwhile, more practical considerations may be prompting Ford to move the Taurus upscale. The automaker has another model, the Fusion, that works well for families, Mr. Libby said. "They they had to position the Taurus differently -- as a halo vehicle with a very stylish, modern, attractive design."

Though he thinks the repositioning may work because of the new Taurus' many positive qualities, there's another challenge to Ford's efforts: charisma and cachet.

"How do you convince somebody who is shopping for a Lexus to try to take a Ford seriously?" Mr. Libby asked. "No matter what the features are that the Taurus has and the others don't, Lexus, for instance, has a lot of brand and name appeal to a luxury car buyer. To them, Ford is just in a different kind of space."

Mr. Nerad agreed. On performance and size issues, he said, the new Taurus probably can go up against entry-level luxury brands. "In terms of prestige and nuance, which is very important to buyers as they move up to those stratospheric heights, it's much more difficult." Mr. Nerad said.

"It's a Ford, right? The name Ford has a lot of good connotations, but luxury and being upscale aren't among them."


Don Hammonds can be reached at dhammonds@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1538.


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