Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Mercury That Could Be

Ever since the 2nd generation Focus launched in Europe, American enthusiasts have pined for it. It's a fantastic car, with refined styling, a high-quality interior and fantastic chassis dynamics. And the ST220 version, with the same 2.5T I-5 found in the Volvo S40, gives the VW GTI a run for its money. Look at that a sweet car, or what?

Anyway, Ford of Europe just came out with another pretty sweet ride that our shores will never see. The new Mondeo (you may have noticed it in the latest Bond movie) is a credible competitor to the VW Passat. While slightly smaller than the US market Fusion, its interior has a level of refinement way past anything sold in this market by the Blue Oval.

Ford tried to bring the Mondeo to the US over a decade ago, as the Contour and Mystique. But the car was a bit small inside and expensive to sell as a Ford product. The fact is, if Ford tried this ploy again, it would probably meet with similar results, as the new car is even higher quality and more expensive.

On the plus side, the new model has grown to the point that American consumers would feel comfortable inside. And that consumer is gradually getting over the notion that price must always have a direct relationship with size. Cars like the Mini Cooper and latest generation GTI are chipping away at this mentality.

Still, Ford's brand image would have a tough time supporting prices like those required to sell the Euro Focus and Mondeo at a profit here. The fact is, Ford would need a clean slate to launch these cars. And as luck would have it, they pretty much have one.

What is Mercury to the American consumer? Well, I think if you ask most people, you'll hear something like, "Well, I guess it's a little more expensive than Ford." Aside from that, people really have no idea what the brand stands for.

The Sword of Damocles has been hanging over Mercury's head for a while. What's the point of this brand? people ask. Well, here's an easy answer. Suggest bringing Euro Fords to the US as Mercurys to a Ford exec and he'll probably come back at you with something like, "Well, it would be too expensive to bring it in line with US regulations." We in the business like to apply a highly technical term to this line of reasoning. It's called bullshit.

Of course General Motors got over this hurdle before Ford, and has begun importing cars from its other divisions around the globe. The Aussie Holden Commodore will be the Pontiac G8, and several Euro Opels will be joining the fun as Saturns.

The Saturn Experiment 2.0 got off to a shaky start last year, though the brand has begun to gain ground. And the real test will be in the form of the new Vue (an Opel Antara) and Astra. The former has arrived here already, with the latter set to check in shortly. These cars are true Opels, unlike the Aura which is simply a classed-up Pontiac G6. Saturn's climb out of the brand doldrums will be slow, but they have the right product, and that is the only right way to execute a brand renaissance.

So will Ford see the light? It's likely that after Saturn has completed its metamorphosis, Ford will take a look and get a severe case of margin envy. By then, though, the Mercury brand may already be 6 feet under. Ford, do yourselves a favor and make a move now, while the gettin's good.


Joanna said...

Ah ha! Now I understand what you're getting at with the whole Mercury question. I guess my confusion was deriving from the fact that I have no problem with the definition of Mercury as a "more expensive version of the Ford product". It would be nice to see Ford revive (or rethink entirely?) the Mercury name. Because, you're right, it seems Mercury has been fading away into nothingness for a while now. It would be just like a clean slate. Way to be a smarty pants.

Anonymous said...

Ford needs to realize that the way to start selling more cars (and turning a profit) is to sell good products people want. I'd buy a Ford if if was one of the Euro versions, and I think other people would too.