Update 3/15/2012: Not long after we posted this original story, Eric Merkle contacted us and wanted to offer a few more points. With his permission, we’ve posted the entirety the email he sent us below.
“As I discussed yesterday at MPG, Ford has a tremendous opportunity to improve its sales performance in the passenger car segment to more closely match the success and sales leadership we’ve seen with our F-Series full-size pickups and utility vehicles. This should not be interpreted to mean F-150 won’t change in large or small ways as we reinforce our product development efforts in other segments, such as midsize sedans.
“Ford is proud that F-Series is the best-selling vehicle and pickup truck in America. We expect to maintain this position through a steady cadence of incremental and major improvements, such as when we introduced the new F-150 in 2009, all-new engines for F-150 and Super Duty in 2011 and last week’s announcement that all F-Series trucks will receive MyFord Touch for 2013.
“We always will improve as we introduce all of our products with best-in-class quality, fuel efficiency, safety, smart design and value. Lastly, my point on PN96 wasn’t to say that customers didn’t like it. The sales numbers would indicate that it was well received. Rather, I prefer the stronger block look of current design and it actually has improved aerodynamics over the previous generations of F-150.”
The Ford F-150 is not likely to change much over next several years — at least that’s what Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst says.
“Segments like the midsize car, where we need to make a big noise against Honda and Toyota, are much better places for Ford to make strong gains, but where we already have a strong presence and people are holding onto their trucks longer than ever before, we’re likely to continue giving customers what they want,” Eric Merkle said at the Motor Press Guild monthly meeting at the Ford Design studio in Irvine, Calif.
Once a carmaker finds a way to allow the design team to incorporate passion into a design, no matter what the segment, the rest is just packaging it properly, Merkle said. “I remember when the redesigned Mustang came out,” he said. “It was one of the easiest forecasts I’ve ever done. I just asked what the maximum capacity was at the plant, and that was my next-year sales prediction.”
Of course not all forecasts go that route, but the more passion you inject, along with all the necessary data points (ride comfort, perceived quality, quietness, cupholders), the better the chances for sales success, Merkle says.
From all indications, the new midsize Ford Fusion will be a hit because of what Merkle describes as the “distance between data and design.” The way he explains it, data collectors get all the information about what customers want in a particular segment, and that info is handed over to the designers. The difference between what customers see and the average transaction price in the segment will all be extra value. Buyers will know they’re getting a great value if they think the vehicle they’re buying looks more expensive than it is and offers all the capacity and capability they need, Merkle says.
When asked how much passion can be injected into a new pickup truck design, Merkle brought up the softer and more organic F-150 design from 1996 that didn’t seem to go over well with truck guys. “The pickup has always been a strong tool. … It’s like a hammer, and the design has to communicate that,” Merkle said. “The ’96 design didn’t do that very well. I think we’ve got all the aerodynamics out of the F-150 that we can.” Tiny gains will always be hunted down, Merkle said, but it is more likely that the biggest changes will continue to come from new powertrain choices.
“You know we announced the partnership with Toyota,” Merkle said, “to explore the idea of a hybrid pickup truck. … I think it would be kind of cool to use whatever electric generator that might include to run a bunch of power tools or set up a well-stocked campsite.”
No doubt we’ll hear more from Ford and Toyota about their upcoming powertrains and the strategies they’ll use to satisfy discerning truck buyers. For now, it doesn’t seem like there is much in the way of new designs or technology headed for the pickup truck segment. At least, not until someone can come up with a more passion-filled design for a cab and bed pickup truck.
In 2008, there were reports (some not so credible) that Ford was in the process ofresurrecting the F-100 pickup and was in heated discussions on what strategy to use. At the time, it seemed like the project was killed because the existing engine choices weren’t sufficient (or economical enough at $4 gas) to achieve the necessary basic towing capacity. However, now with a full range of EcoBoost choices and with gas prices predicted to hit $5 per gallon, it wouldn’t surprise us at all if the F-100 idea sees a brighter day. However, whether Ford designers get the chance to infuse the passion and capability into a single smaller pickup truck remains to be seen.
Oxmoor Ford Lincoln Louisville Kentucky, Oxmoor Auto Group Louisville Kentucky, http://www.oxmoorflm.com, http://www.oxmoorford.net.com, http://www.oxmoorlincoln.com, http://www.oxmoorautogroup.com