- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

Chris P. Theodore, Ford Motor Co. vice president and chief of its North American Car Vehicle Center, says the company is ahead of schedule in a five-year plan to bring out new car models that ooze passion.

Rejecting comments that Ford has neglected cars in favor of its highly profitable truck business, that includes the best-selling F-series pickups and Explorer sport utilities, Mr. Theodore said "the car business is alive and well."

"Ford doesn't just rely on the truck business," he told the International Motor Press Association in New York recently. He insists the car business is solid and it's not going away. Mr. Theodore is in charge of all Ford car programs, except for the Focus subcompact. He created a car-revitalization plan that was rejected by the Ford product-strategy committee.

Mr. Theodore now concedes that his initial product-revitalization blueprint was extremely aggressive and growth oriented, perhaps too grandiose. He said that a new, prudent plan of controlled growth in the car business was substituted. "We are going to bootstrap our way up in the car business," Mr. Theodore said. He predicts that all the cars Ford is coming back with as a result of the plan will be more appropriate for the American customer.

Ford is specifically targeting customers who he labels the "millennial," the next generation after the baby boomers. "They are the next huge wave coming," Mr. Theodore said. "You want to get in early and grow with them." Capturing the new generation and continuing to grow with aging baby boomers is a key part of the Ford product plan.

Mr. Theodore sees opportunities above and beyond Taurus that would meet the need of baby boomers who are looking to live a better life and enjoy a better car. "We want to grow with that affluence," he said.

The new models won't be just "plain vanilla transportation." Mr. Theodore said Ford is going after the psychological needs of prospective customers. The Thunderbird is a good example of getting back to true Ford values. In particular, the T-Bird doesn't make the customer feel like he's getting ripped off. Failure to dispel that negativity prevented Ford from getting ahead of Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen in the midsize segment.

Mr. Theodore said Ford's new plan calls for cars with quality above Toyota and Honda levels that outperform the Volkswagen Passat. "We're not going head to head, but we think we can get other responses. Assisting the revitalization effort will be a global sharing of architecture with other companies in the Ford group. When asked, Mr. Theodore would not comment specifically on using Volvo's S80 platform for the next-generation Taurus.

The Ford car czar said there will be a mix of front- and rear-wheel drive cars. But Mr. Theodore also sees a strengthening of demand for all-wheel-drive models as evidenced in Europe. The X-type Jaguar is such a car, he said. "All-wheel drive connotes security and safety to the consciousness." The front-drive cars will be more functional types, while he sees the rear-drive models being more emotional products. He also predicts future automatic transmissions will have more speeds and a continued march of new engine technologies.

Mr. Theodore forecasts that the car industry will see increasing cost pressures at a time when it is virtually impossible to increase car prices. That's because of fierce competition and ballooning incentives. Ford wants to continue to be the company that offers the least incentives and at the same time improve the cost structure by getting leaner and faster without taking anything away from customers.

"There's still a lot of waste that we can take out," Mr. Theodore said. Part of Ford's long-term car plan is a realization that models may not achieve blockbuster sales levels of more than 500,000 units annually. Mr. Theodore sees the need to plan cars that fill more niches. A greater differentiation is needed to satisfy the tastes of different buyer segments. Running through all these segments will be a determination to provide cars that inspire passion with exciting design and exhilarating performance.

MOTOR MATTERS


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