Will UK drivers fancy Ford’s plain Focus?

Replacing the UK’s top-selling car was never going to be easy for Ford, and the new Focus has received mixed reviews. So will the company lose the hatchback crown to a rival? asks Lucy Barrett

The new Ford Focus has the toughest act in motoring to follow. The old Focus is the best-selling car in the UK, with 131,282 new registrations between January and November 2004. This put it more than 30,000 units ahead of its nearest rival, the Vauxhall Corsa, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Having launched the new Focus on Boxing Day, Ford is expected to go on the hard sell and is planning to spend about £13m on advertising the car in the first quarter of this year.

The original model was launched in 1999, winning high praise from consumers and the motoring press. It was perceived as a breath of fresh air compared to the conservative Escort it replaced.

While the Focus has done well, winning or being placed highly in group tests and continuing to be a top-seller right to the end of its model run, it is not clear that its successor will have such an easy ride.

Other manufacturers have raised their games and introduced new models to the medium-sized hatchback market, which accounts for a third of UK car sales. Premium brands such as BMW and Mercedes, which have historically targeted the top end of the sector and are now entering the mass market, are also hoping to eat into the Focus’s 22 per cent share of this hatchback category.

So far, the Focus has managed to hold on to its position at the top of the most competitive car market in Europe. But in order for it to continue to do so, Ford of Britain marketing director Steve Hood believes it is necessary to update the car. He says: “Safety and crash technology have moved on so much that it was a necessity to have a new platform for the car.” The new Focus has a five-star NCAP crash-test rating, unlike its predecessor, which was only given four stars. With safety such an important consideration for consumers, this improved rating should help to spur sales of the new Focus.

The car will have to compete with a freshly styled Astra from Vauxhall and the radical new Citroën C4. BMW has also committed itself to this market for the first time, with the 1 series, and Mercedes is set to offer a new, higher-quality, more youthful A-class.

Paul Nieuwenhuis, assistant director at the Institute of Automotive Research at Cardiff Business School, says a key issue facing Ford is a move by consumers to prestige brands that are perceived as being better, but are not necessarily so. “There is so much competition in this sector that it doesn’t take much for consumers to switch brands,” he says. “The BMW 1 series could be a problem, depending on how many of the cars BMW can make.”

Hood, however, seems relatively unconcerned about the premium brands entering this market, in which the only competition historically for the Focus has been from Volkswagen’s Golf.

He says the new Focus is being positioned as a premium quality car, and that once consumers drive it they will be converted and unwilling to pay extra for a BMW.

An advertising campaign, created by Ogilvy & Mather, featuring a fashion designer who is won over by the car’s quality, is driving this message home with the help of that £13m first-quarter media spend.

The car’s strongest competition is unlikely to come from the latest Golf, which, with its Focus- emulating suspension, has failed to excite buyers. Sales of the car have been below expectations, despite various incentives to buy.

But the new Focus, which has been described as pleasant to drive, faces more individualistic offerings from other rival manufacturers. Some of these, in particular the C4, have even won group comparisons in road tests. And critics of the Focus have said the new model looks boring.

Hood believes that the car “grows on you” and says it does have a lot of style. However, he concedes that it has been designed with a broad market in mind, perhaps an admission that its looks are conservative.

One rival claims the new Focus is “not as dramatic” as its predecessor. “It’s a rather desperate attempt to enhance sales by creating a car that fails to stir any emotions,” he adds. “It comes at the same time as almost everyone else is launching exciting-looking cars in this sector. It’s either very clever, or very stupid – the jury will be out for the first few months after it goes on sale.”

Citroën UK spokesman Marc Raven is more diplomatic: “The Focus is clearly the market leader, so we are very happy that the C4 is in contention.”

He adds that Citroën will be launching a television campaign for the five-door C4 this month, to coincide with the launch of the new Focus. “The launch of the Focus will stimulate interest in this segment, which will be good for us,” he says. Raven is particularly confident about the styling of the C4, pointing out that the way a car looks is increasingly important to consumers.

Perhaps in recognition of the criticism directed at the styling of the new Focus, Ford poached Vauxhall/Opel head of design Martin Smith earlier this year. UK-born Smith was responsible for the styling of the new Vauxhall Astra and Tigra.

Nieuwenhuis says that Ford faces the same tricky problem with the Focus that VW did when it updated the old Golf last year – that of high expectations.

He believes Ford has missed out on important trends, such as the move to diesel engines and the rise of small multipurpose vehicles. Renault’s Scenic proved so profitable that it enabled the company to buy Nissan. “The problem is that Ford is a US company. People underestimate the extent to which decisions are taken in the head office at Dearborn. It is much easier to see what is needed in Europe if you are in Paris or Turin,” he says.

Although the Focus is not quite a make-or-break car for Ford, it is a particularly important model for the company, which can be said to be doing well in only the Australian market. Management will be keeping their fingers crossed that a more conservative Focus is exactly what UK consumers are looking for.


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