The Ford Focus debuted in North America last fall, a year after it was introduced in Europe.
Cute, inexpensive, and fun to drive, the Focus sold briskly from the get-go. And by the end of the year, George Pipas, Ford’s high priest of sales analysis, was getting curiouser and curiouser. Given the way it was moving out of the showrooms in both Europe and North America, could the Focus be in the process of unseating the Volkswagen Golf as the world’s best-selling passenger car?
At the end of last year, Mr. Pipas painstakingly compiled the European and U.S. sales results for December, and found that the Focus had apparently gotten to the top of the heap. But he didn’t want to hang such a heady claim on a month’s results.
“I kept quiet” about the December sales, Mr. Pipas recalled. “I didn’t tell anyone the results, not even my own management. I thought: ‘OK, let’s just put it on the shelf, and we’ll take another stab when we can gather sales for the first quarter.’ “
So, he decided to wait until April when he could look at the first three months of 2000.
“Lo and behold, when we looked, the Focus was not only on top, it was on top by a sufficient margin that we could feel comfortable making the best-selling assertion,” he said.
The results for the first six months of 2000 were even more decisive. With sales of 504,000 through the end of June, the Focus was on track to sell a million copies this year. That represents almost 15 percent of Ford’s total global vehicle sales of 7 million. In other words, one out of every seven vehicles Ford sells is a Focus.
And Ford is only just beginning to market the car in Asia and South America.
The total of 504,000 for the first half (which includes 300,000 in Europe and 190,000 in North America) put the Focus well in front of the VW Golf, which had sales of 425,000, according to Mr. Pipas. It also created a wide gulf between it and the other runners-up. Mr. Pipas’ approximate numbers for them are: Opel Astra, 380,000; Fiat Punto, 360,000; Opel Corsa, 350,000; Peugeot 206, 335,000; Toyota Corolla, 330,000; Renault Clio, 295,000; and Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, 275,000 each.
Given the Focus’ prestigious title as the world’s best-selling car, you would think that Ford would toot that horn relentlessly. It certainly does with its F-Series pickup, which is the best-selling truck in America, with annual sales of 869,000, and, for the moment, at least, the best-selling vehicle in the world.
But its Focus bragging is less ubiquitous. Yes, it brings up its best-selling status in the European market, but not in its native land.
The reason is very simple, Mr. Pipas explained. In Europe, where this large subcompact is as big or bigger than 85 percent of the cars on the road, it attracts a broad-based, essentially adult clientele that responds to that best-selling badge.
But in America, where the Focus is a relatively small, entry-level car aimed at bringing the youngest car buyers into the Ford fold, underscoring “best-selling” would be sales poison, Mr. Pipas said. This is because Ford is peddling it to youth as a “cool car,” and it would be hard to sell the Focus as the hip province of youth if you are also suggesting that a boatload of adults are part of the act.
And so, Ford underplays the car’s overall sales success in order to be successful with U.S. youth. And it has been.
Bob Fesmire, the Focus marketing manager, pointed out that one-fourth of this car’s U.S. sales are to people between the ages of 18 and 25. He said that compares with an industry small-car average of 19 percent.
Winning the hearts and minds of this group is of immense importance to big automakers such as Ford. Mr. Fesmire observed: “Those people born from 1976 on are a group 80 million in number, which rivals the baby boomers. They are going to be extremely important, and we want to connect with them now while they are forming opinions, and give them a good impression of Ford.”
“We made an investment in the future,” Mr. Pipas added. “We missed the X generation ‘25 to 35’, but we made up our minds we weren’t going to miss the Y generation ‘under 25’.”
Getting the young into the Ford habit puts a smile on a lot of corporate faces, of course. As Mr. Fesmire put it: “It’s easier to keep the loyal, satisfied customers you’ve got than it is to conquer somebody else’s loyal, satisfied customers.”
The automaker has been able to sell the Focus which was designed by Ford of Europe to youth for the same reasons it has made a lot of sales to the more geezeresque.
With a starting price under $13,000, the Focus is affordable. It is also easy on gas, and cute in a distinctive way.
The car is also appealing because of the utility that flows from the multiplicity of models it is available as a two-door hatchback, sedan and wagon and from the surprising amount of interior space. (That roominess derives from putting the wheels near the corners of the car and raising the roof).
The Focus is also an excellent driver. It gets decent motivation from its standard, 110-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and is downright frisky when equipped with the techier, 130-horse four.
The car also corners well and steers wonderfully.
To make the car even more intriguing to the young, Ford has been offering it in a series of special editions. It started with the Sony Edition Focus, which featured a Schwarzeneggerian sound system, and followed that with a Kona Edition, which included a mountain bike plus canvas seat covers and rubber bike-tread-design floor mats that could be removed for washing.
The latest is the Street Edition, which will be available around Jan. 1. This $775 extra includes sporty body trim, special alloy wheels, and the high-performance European suspension tuning previously unavailable in the U.S. market.
Mr. Fesmire said the color palette for the Street Edition would include infra red, Malibu blue, and the ever-popular egg yolk yellow.
Presumably, the new Street Edition will add to the strain on Ford’s production capability. Mr. Fesmire said both North American Focus assembly plants (in Wayne, Mich., and Hermosillo, Mexico) are already running flat out.
But that’s the kind of problem Ford can live with. Not only does it have the world’s best-selling automobile, it has the top-selling car among Americans 25 and under.
And that, of course, is the horizon.
KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE NEWS