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Ford unveils new Taurus at South Side plant

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By Michael D. Oneal | Tribune staff reporter

5:49 PM CDT, August 4, 2009

More than "cash for clunkers," more than surprisingly strong July sales results, more than its status as the only U.S. car company not to accept the government's largesse, Ford Motor Co.'s future may hinge on how it manages new products like its reincarnated Taurus.

The Taurus, expected to appear in showrooms by the end of the week, looks nothing like its predecessor, which almost went extinct in 2007 after once reigning as America's most popular automobile. And Mark Fields, Ford's president for the Americas, made it clear Tuesday when officially introducing the car that the new Taurus will never become the sales behemoth the old one was.

But analysts say Ford's newest will provide an important test of whether the company has truly learned to avoid the bad habits that have plagued it in the past--overproducing vehicles, failing to create buzz and leaning on fleet sales and incentives to drive demand.

Some still question whether Ford has developed what Fields called "a real insider understanding of what the customer wants."

"The hope is they'll learn from their mistakes and get it right this time," said Michelle Hill, who puts together the influential Harbour Report manufacturing study.

The challenge begins with Taurus's prices, which start at $25,170 for a standard model and run as high as $37,170 for the Taurus SHO, a souped up version featuring Ford's new EcoBoost engine.

John Wolkonowicz, an analyst at IHS Global Insight said the Taurus will benefit from aging competition in its segment -- the Toyota Avalon, the Chrysler 300 and the Chevrolet Impala. But the price is still a rich one for an economy just emerging from recession.

To profit at that price level, analysts said, Ford will have to carefully manage both the production and the marketing of the Taurus, avoiding the many pitfalls that have befallen so many Ford cars in the past, including the Ford Five Hundred, on which the Taurus is based, and the Ford Freestyle, a failed crossover that previously shared the Chicago plant with the Five Hundred.

Wolkonowicz points out that the Five Hundred and Freestyle stalled because they never met a true customer need. The Freestyle was supposed to appeal to both SUV and minivan customers (it ended up appealing to neither) and the Five Hundred was a sedan built on the Freestyle frame primarily to fill up factory capacity.

The Taurus, by contrast, has gotten high marks from critics for its elegant interior and features like a high-tech blind spot alert that flashes yellow in the side-view mirror if a vehicle presents a danger.

But analysts warn that Ford will have to resist the temptation to over build and kill the car's economics. Hill said the old Taurus lost much of its appeal when Ford pushed it into the car rental fleets to absorb the huge volume of cars it was producing.

"They will have to do a much better job of matching customer demand to inventory," said Hill. "The right strategy is to balance demand with production."

Fields acknowledged that point Tuesday at the Chicago factory where Taurus will be built alongside the Lincoln MKS.

"How many we sell is up to the consumer, but it's very much in line with our strategy that we match capacity to demand," he said.

Edited by Satty

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The rest of the story.

What that means, said Wolkonowicz, is that Ford may have to content itself with a Taurus that tops out with a sales volume below 100,000 units, not 500,000. It will have to keep its plants flexible enough so that it can ramp them up and slow them down in synch with buying habits, something Toyota Motor Corp. excels at.

"They've become more realistic," Wolkonowicz said of Ford, for which he has consulted in the past. "The biggest fear they always had was that they would get a hot car and they wouldn't have enough capacity for it. So they always (built too much)."

Experts said Ford also will have to rein in its worst impulses when it comes to marketing. Alexander Edwards, co-founder of consultant Strategic Vision, said U.S. manfacturers have grown so unsure about the appeal of their products relative to foreign producers that they almost instinctively fall back on price cuts and incentives to drive demand.

With a product like the Taurus, he said, that could spell trouble. He's impressed with the new car's look and feel, as well as its technology. But, he said that Ford needs to justify the relatively rich price in its advertising and marketing by confidently highlighting those features, not defensively comparing them to rivals.

"They need to show customers the inherent quality that's there so those customers will reexamine what Ford is," Edwards said. "If the manufacturer doesn't trust their product, why should the customer in this economy take a risk on it."

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It's pricey for a Ford, but at the same time, it's 90% as good as luxury cars costing twice as much. More importantly, investment bankers won't be egged in one.

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sat in one a couple months ago. its the bomb.

ive had 5 fords now in the last 15 years or so and all have been repair free. this myth of toyota being the only reliable car has to die.

the 500 may have lagged commercially, but mine was 45k trouble free, great mpg, lots of function and comfort, and anyone who got in the car loved it. sucker was solid as a rock and prob will still be solid 10 years from now.

fords line lacks sexy tyling overall and their curb weights need to come down and nicer interiors but in terms of value and function and safety and reliability, Ford is in a good place.

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The Fusion is really the replacement for the old Taurus. That's what's going to pick up most of the volume. The new Taurus has completely grown out of the midsize family sedan segment.

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I know some will have strokes, but the current Taurus really replaces the Crown Victoria. And full sized cars come with full sized price tags. Ford should stress that the car is the Flagship and not the generic rental car anymore.

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I saw my first Taurus commercial the other day, the side-view mirror one. I like it, it shows off the car and the technology.

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