Wayne plant stands to gain from redesigns.
Bryce G. Hoffman - The Detroit News - August 2, 2006
2007 Ford Focus - improved EPA of 27/37 City/Highway
WAYNE, MI. - A few years ago, Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Truck plant was churning out big SUVs and big profits while its car plant down the road in Wayne quietly cranked out small cars that fewer and fewer Americans wanted.
Now, the tables appear to be turning.
The same skyrocketing gasoline prices that have knocked the bottom out of the SUV market could help bolster the future of the fuel-efficient Focus and the Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant, which is making more vehicles than it has in years.
And instead of neglecting the Focus as it has in years past, Ford has big plans to improve the design, engineering and fuel efficiency of the little car. For example:
- Ford boosted the fuel economy of the Focus currently on the road by about 3 miles per gallon through engineering tweaks.
- In January, Ford will show off a refreshed version of the Focus at the Detroit auto show and begin selling it next summer, company sources told The Detroit News. The new design will feature a reworked front end and a bolder design patterned after the Ford Fusion sedan. The new car has room for only a two-bar chrome grille instead of the signature three-bar grille on the Fusion.
- Ford will also debut a two-door Focus coupe to complement its stable of offerings, which includes three- and five-door hatchbacks, a four-door sedan and a four-door wagon.
The refreshed Focus is "a lot stronger than a lot of people expected," said Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, who has seen the new vehicle.
The new 2008 Focus will be an interim vehicle until Ford can turn out a more complete redesign of the car by 2010. That's when it plans to converge the U.S. Focus and the European Focus on the same platform, which will also underpin the future Mazda3 and Volvo C30, S40 and V70.
Shifting the Focus
Today, Ford sells a different version of the Focus to the rest of the world. The European-made Focus is a superior vehicle that features much more dynamic styling, better performance and superior quality. Many industry analysts have wondered why Ford cannot sell the European Focus - widely regarded as one of the best small cars in the world - in North America.
The answer is price. While the Focus fits snugly in the compact economy segment in the United States, it is considered a midsize car in most of the rest of the world. In fact, it is considered an upmarket vehicle in many countries and is priced accordingly.
For example, the sporty Focus Zetec starts at $25,491 in Britain, which is more than the price of a Ford Fusion, the next car up in Ford's domestic lineup. In the United States, prices for the Focus start at less than $14,000 - and that is before rebates.
The Focus was originally designed for the European market in 1998, then redesigned for North America in 2000. Ford introduced a completely redesigned Focus for the European market in 2004 that was based on the Mazda3 platform. The company decided not to bring that vehicle to the United States because it doubted it could sell the new Focus for enough to cover the cost.
According to Hall, Ford is taking a different approach with the next-generation Focus, starting with the North American version of the automobile and working up from there. "It makes sense to design the base vehicle for the market with the greatest cost pressure," he said, explaining that it's easier to add on to a vehicle than take away content or features.
The American version of the next-generation Focus will still differ markedly from its European counterpart. It will still be aimed at a more cost-conscious segment of the market than its European sibling and it will still have to meet this country's more stringent safety requirements.
Hall expects the next-generation Focus to be in showrooms by the end of 2010 and projects the company could sell as many as 300,000 vehicles a year in this country if gasoline prices stay high.
Ford hopes the new versions of the Focus will boast better fuel economy than the 2007 model, which gets 27 miles per gallon in the city and 37 miles per gallon on the highway with a manual transmission.
That's 3 miles per gallon better than the 2006 version, thanks to some tweaking by Ford engineers.
"The engine had really been calibrated for emissions instead of fuel economy," said Nicholas Schubeck, supervisor of powertrain calibration for Ford.
Ford also has released a service fix so mechanics can retune 2006 models to get similar performance increases.
Focus sales were down 9.6 percent this year through July, but that's a far smaller drop-off than the company's SUVs have experienced.
Last year, the factory produced about 167,000 Focus cars. Another 22,000 were produced at Ford's plant in Hermosillo, Mexico. In October, North American Focus production was consolidated at Wayne.
This year, Ford expects to build about 215,000 vehicles in Wayne. To accommodate the increased production, Ford has sped up the line at Wayne. But Ford is not adding workers. In fact, about 190 workers have taken buyouts this year as part of the company's restructuring campaign, and Ford plans to offer about 50 more before the end of the year.
The increased production and reduced staff means more overtime for the plant's 2,850 hourly workers.
"In this economic environment, that's welcome news for them," said Kenneth Minielly, plant manager at Wayne. "This plant probably hasn't worked overtime in about four years."
Minielly holds regular "town hall" meetings with workers to update them on Ford's restructuring effort and has posted placards at prominent locations throughout the plant to remind workers that they are still not as competitive as their counterparts at Japanese-run factories.
"I'm brutally honest with them," said Minielly, a former line worker whose grandfather was among the first group of workers at Wayne when it opened in 1952.
"Ultimately, we're going to have to get competitive with the Japanese transplant plants in the South."
Bill Johnson, plant chairman of United Auto Workers Local 900, says workers are committed to helping the plant become world class.
"We know that we're in it together," he said. "We're either going to sink or swim together."