Ford sees itself as a leader, but it's playing catch-up
James B. Treece is industry editor for Automotive News.
At recent press events, Ford Motor Co. has touted several achievements:
The fuel- and cash-saving performance of its electric vehicles, particularly its new plug-ins.
Its gains in China, the world's largest auto market.
Early steps -- including a dedicated design studio and a new ad agency's launch of fresh advertising -- to rebuild Lincoln as a premium brand.
All of those are true and measurable accomplishments. But they also share a common theme: Ford is playing catch-up in those areas.
When Ford talks about how inexpensively drivers can "refuel" by plugging their C-Max Energi into a wall socket overnight, the automaker is echoing a pitch that General Motors made when it launched the Chevrolet Volt in late 2010.
Ford's plans for Lincoln will mean following the trail blazed by Cadillac a decade ago. Ford may say it wants to go beyond where Cadillac is now, but first it at least has to match Cadillac's success in appealing to a new generation of consumers.
And while it's true that Ford is increasing sales and opening factories in China, it has a long march ahead to equal GM's performance there. Consider their light-vehicle market-share numbers in China through September: Ford, 2.4 percent, up 0.3 point from a year earlier; GM, 7.6 percent, up 0.2 point.
For the last few years, Ford has been portrayed as the golden child of the American auto industry. Certainly it has much of which to be proud.
Ford avoided bankruptcy. That alone puts it head and shoulders above GM and Chrysler Group.
It also has introduced standout vehicles. It has vastly improved the fuel economy of its cars and trucks just when consumers became highly sensitive to pump prices. It has been extremely profitable in North America. It has steadily improved supplier relations for several years. And Ford has taken decisive action to deal with the economic crisis in Europe. All of those actions and accomplishments stand in sharp contrast with its crosstown rivals.
Indeed, the last couple of years, Ford has sought to put itself on a different plane than its Detroit competitors, often comparing itself not with them but with its import rivals, Toyota Motor Corp. in particular.
Lately, Ford has been hammering nonstop about how its latest vehicles compare favorably with those of Toyota, particularly on fuel economy. Yet the most recent Consumer Reports reliability survey shows just how far Ford still must go. While Toyota, Lexus and Scion were atop the chart, Lincoln and Ford finished 26th and 27th out of 28 brands, with only Jaguar beneath them.
And Ford isn't the Detroit leader in all things automotive.
Its avoidance of Chapter 11 and subsequent hefty profits in North America arguably are the result of ignoring Lincoln while lavishing all its financial and management resources on the Ford brand.
Even while GM sought court protection to continue as a going concern, it kept investing in all four surviving brands. Consider the Lincoln MKZ, which is the first in a promised rejuvenation of the brand's lineup. It arrives a full year after the Cadillac ATS, that brand's new design champion.
And despite Ford's rollout of stellar vehicles, Chrysler Group has had faster-growing sales over the past two years, gaining share through a combination of great vehicle designs and bold marketing.
Ford has much to brag about. Its executives like to portray their company as an industry leader. But give credit where credit is due. Ford is trying to match GM, in particular, in areas where GM is the leader.
Playing catch-up is a start. But Ford needs to accelerate its development in several key areas if it wants to claim industry leadership.
You can reach James B. Treece at firstname.lastname@example.org.