By Bradford Wernle, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Dec. 9, 2013) — Why would Ford Motor Co. go to so much trouble and expense to redesign and globalize its only remaining rear-wheel-drive car when it hasn’t even cracked the 100,000 sales mark since 2007?
Here are a few reasons:
Competition from the Chevy Camaro: The 2015 Mustang may have aspirations of going up against Porsches and BMWs on the German Autobahn with its new 155-mph top speed. But Ford knows the overwhelming majority of sales still will be in the U.S., where traditional rivalries still rule. That means the Chevrolet Camaro first and foremost. The Camaro has held an edge over the Mustang since 2010 and leads 75,552 to 71,459 through November.
“If you look at the Camaro and how successful it has been in sales, it’s time to take it up a notch for Ford,” said Dave Sullivan, analyst for Tustin, Calif.-based research firm AutoPacific Inc.
That includes adding features such as independent rear suspension, which Camaro has, updating the design for a younger crowd and offering more creature comforts and technology. The Mustang arrives in dealerships next fall, and IHS Automotive predicts it will overtake the Camaro in sales in 2015. The forecast calls for modest sales in countries outside North America, with Germany being the largest new market.
Heart and soul of a brand: Ford has sold about 9 million Mustangs since a teacher named Gail Wise of Park Ridge, Ill., bought the first car sold at retail—a baby blue convertible from Johnson Ford in Cicero, Ill., in the spring of 1964. The Mustang has been produced continuously since then while some rivals, such as the Camaro, have come and gone and come again. The only other Ford that can make that longevity claim is the F-150 pickup.
“Mustang cuts to the heart and soul of Ford Motor Co.,” said Mark Fields, Ford COO, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people at Mustang unveiling festivities in Detroit last week. “It represents our company at its best.”
<b>Fun</b>: While most of Ford’s product lineup still has roots in functional transportation—sold at prices most people can afford—the Mustang stands out as less utilitarian.
“The Mustang is not a commuter A to B vehicle,” said Steve Ling, Ford’s U.S. car marketing manager. “People still want a visceral driving experience. If you had a crappy day at work, and go down to the parking lot and turn the key, it’s an instant vacation.”
Global halo car factor: Ford sees the Mustang as an image-maker for an American car company with global aspirations.
Said Mr. Ling: “This is an emotional connection to Ford for a lot of people. If you can get somebody emotionally connected, maybe they will buy other Fords.”
AutoPacific’s Mr. Sullivan said Ford is globalizing most of the rest of its lineup to achieve economies of scale. Mustang is no exception.
“When you spend money to develop these vehicles, you’ve got to get the most volume out of everything you design,” he said. “The only way you can get the scale you need is to try and sell as many as you can globally.”
Attracting young buyers: The average age of the Mustang owner is 52, compared with 49 for the Camaro, according to Strategic Vision. The original Mustang was aimed squarely at the youth market. But that has changed along the way. The current Mustang has a heavy dose of retro, from its solid beam rear axle to the hockey stick imprint in the body sides.
Ford wants to move the Mustang back toward the youth market with a design it hopes young people will find more appealing.
“I understood they need to bring in your younger demographics,” said Marcie Cipriani, director of the SVT Owners Association, an enthusiast group dedicated to Ford performance vehicles. “I think it will be huge around the world.”
Whether it’s a big hit or not, Ford knows the Mustang won’t hit the sales heights it did in the 1960s, when it peaked at 549,438 in 1966. At last week’s unveiling, a journalist asked Mr. Fields what his sales targets were for the new Mustang. He declined to give a number and said with a laugh: “It’s not 417,000,” referring to the Mustang’s original first-year sales target.
The Mustang is one of those rare cars whose success will not be measured by unit sales anyway. Ford Chairman Bill Ford told the British enthusiasts' magazine Autocar: “It’s not a matter of volume, but reputation. Of course, we will want to sell respectable numbers, but what we want to demonstrate, with what we’ve done with the suspension, steering and brakes, is that this American icon can be an enjoyable, responsive car in Europe.”
John Coletti, the engineering design manager who headed the team that developed the 1994 Mustang, offered this explanation of the Mustang’s importance to the company: “If you go to a man in the deepest part of Tennessee and ask him what a Jaguar is, he might tell you it’s a car. But if you ask him what a Mustang is, he’ll tell you it’s a Ford.”
This report appeared on autonews.com, the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.