LONDON - Dealers and Ford's European sales organizations have been frustrated by the company's decision not to base a compact minivan on the current Focus model.
But Ford officials say they believe they have the fast-growing small minivan segment covered until new products come along several years from now.
The question will be whether those products will be new and different enough to make up for the time Ford has lost. Renault's Megane Scenic appeared in 1996 and General Motors' Zafira in 1998.
Ford now plans to base its multi-activity vehicle (MAV) on the next generation Focus. But that means it will not appear until at least 2003, half a decade or more behind the competition.
Supplier sources say the original five-seater was scheduled to go on sale at the end of 1999. Once redesigned as a seven-seater, the MAV was planned to debut around the third quarter of 2001.
'The five-seater was a reaction to the Scenic and the seven-seater was a reaction to the Zafira,' said Charles Moss, an analyst at J.D. Power-LMC an Oxford, England-based market research firm. 'It's reaction car-building.'
Nigel Griffiths, analyst and researcher for Standard & Poor's DRI in London, said the compact minivan segment has been the most dynamic in the industry during the last 10 years. Spurred by the entry of Zafira, the segment grew 54.1 percent in Europe in 1999, according to estimates by JATO Dynamics and Automotive News Europe.
'From a strategic product market perspective, it (the lack of a compact minivan) is going to be a significant problem for them over the next few years,' said Griffiths. He estimated that Ford will lose about 150,000 units, or roughly 1 percent of European market share, in the immediate future by not building the model.
Ford now faces the challenge of filling a 'yawning gap in its future model strategy,' he said. The company also faces the possibility that it might not make its sales projections on the Focus platform, he said.
Dealers, who had been awaiting a competitor to the segment-leading Scenic and Zafira, were disappointed to learn of the decision.
'We need such a model, because we do not have a (full-size) Scorpio either, so we have nothing to offer against an Opel Zafira or Omega,' said Britta Mohr of the Auto Rossler Ford dealership in Kassel, Germany.
'Although we are successful with the Galaxy, we would like to see a smaller MPV to complete the range,' said Christian Timmann, manager of a Ford dealer in Hamburg. 'So I regret Ford's decision.'
A Ford official in one European country described the move to cancel the MAV as a 'very bad decision.'
But David Thursfield, president of Ford of Europe, said: 'We've looked at our lineup and clearly we've got that covered with the cycle plan over the next two or three years.'
Part of the plan will be unveiled this week at the Geneva auto show, where Ford will show a redesigned Galaxy minivan and a concept car based on the Galaxy. Ford will also probably make a people-mover version of the new Fiesta platform and is introducing a small sport-utility in Europe called the Escape.
Dave Reuter, spokesman for Ford of Europe, said Ford still plans to make an MAV based on the Focus. Just what shape that will take he and other Ford officials are not saying.
Ford originally conceived the Focus MAV as a five-seater, and sources say that car could have been on sale by now if Ford had kept with that plan. But when executives saw the seven-seat Zafira they went back to the drawing board.
The sources say Ford could not get the vehicle right in time to produce it economically on the current Focus platform.
Despite Zafira's success, some in the industry remain skeptical of the need for a seven-seater in the segment.
Citroen recently launched the Picasso with five seats and the vehicle is selling well. Renault Chief Executive Louis Schweitzer told Automotive News Europe he believed seven-seat models would account for only 10-15 percent of future MAV sales.
Ford officials will not say whether they are going ahead with a seven-seat version or will come up with some new variant. Ford engineers in Germany have looked closely at the innovative six-seat Fiat Multipla, for example.
Thursfield said Ford no longer wants to allow others to define segments.
He said: 'We will dance to our own drum.'
Wim Oude Weernink, Dorothee Ostle and Stephane Farhi contributed to this story