Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Want a car? Ford still has them, but crossovers are the future

Frank Walker has been selling Fords in Pinellas County for decades. He remembers the Ranger, the Bronco, the Probe and the Thunderbird ó all once-popular models that went out of production.

So when Ford announced earlier this year that it was going to stop making well-known sedans and small cars, he knew what to expect.

First, confusion (Yes, Ford is still in business), then questions (No, the iconic Mustang isnít going away), followed by a long goodbye as the models wonít disappear overnight.

"Customers were surprised by the announcement, for sure," said Walker, 71, sitting in a conference room at the Walker Ford dealership on U.S. 19 south of Belleair Road. "But like the times before, the confusion gives way to an understanding that if they still want one of the cars, they can get one."

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Ford said in April that it would stop making the Fusion, Fiesta and Taurus, and the current version of the Focus. Industry insiders reported that the company would first stop manufacturing the Focus in May of this year, followed by the Fiesta and Taurus in the first half of next year and the Fusion sometime after that.

Walker, now the president of Walker Ford, got his start washing cars at the dealership founded in 1957 by his father E.B. "Doc" Walker. He described the April announcement as "more drastic" than some of the previous changes to Fordís vehicle lineup.

He was surprised the company decided to stop making the Fusion. The company sold 209,623 last year, down 21 percent from the year before, but still enough to rank 19th on the list of the nationís top selling vehicles. The Ford F-Series topped the list with nearly 900,000 sold.

Ford isnít alone in moving away from low-selling, low-margin cars. Fiat Chrysler stopped making its Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart sedans, and GM recently announced that it would cut back on its investments in passenger cars and trim production of its Chevrolet Cruz sedan.

The moves are part of a larger trend in the U.S. car market, one that dealers like Walker have seen play out over the past decade: The rise of SUVs and crossover-utility vehicles, think of them as SUV lite.

By 2022, forecasters predict 73 percent of U.S. sales will be utility vehicles, including pickups. Ford will be close to 90 percent, helped by its plan to bring back the Ranger pickup and the Bronco SUV, and introduce the Focus Active, a crossover version of the compact Focus hatchback that is being discontinued.

"Even before they made this announcement, we were selling mostly SUVs, crossovers and trucks," Walker said. "Thatís what the people want. Thatís what they come in here for."

Walker and sales and leasing manager Tracy Affrunti ticked off a bunch of reasons why.

Theyíre easier to drive, more luxurious, with a better ride than the SUVs of 20 years ago. Many models are now lower to the ground, which make them easier for seniors to get into, but still high enough for drivers who like to see above the traffic. Active families can pile in lots of kids, groceries and equipment. The gas mileage isnít bad, either.

"They love the flexibility," Affrunti said. "And when we explain that the Fusion sedan and the crossover Escape are priced about the same, a lot more now go with the crossover."

Ivey Thigpen, the general sales manager added: "I donít think a trunk excites many people anymore."

Fordís move isnít without risk. The smaller cars can attract first-time buyers. If those buyers go elsewhere, they might not come back to a Ford dealer to buy a crossover or pickup. Toyota, for instance, used small, affordable cars to gain a foothold in the U.S. market and then expanded. Kia and Hyundai followed a similar path.

Walker isnít worried. He knows other carmakers could try to capture some of the small car and sedan market, but at least for the next few years he doesnít think that market will expand. He predicted that he would have enough Fusions and other discontinued models around to satisfy customers who want them. It helps, he said, that Walker Ford has more inventory ó about 600 new and 100 used vehicles ó than many dealers.

Ford also might use the industryís shift toward more electric technology to jump back into the small car market. Even if it doesnít, Walker likes that Ford is willing to mix things up. Getting stale isnít an option, he said.

"Ford is a leader, not a follower," Walker said. "When they make a decision like this, itís not to hurt a franchise dealer like us. I think it is to get us prepared for whatís coming."

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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