Ford rolls out new F series — but will it stay No. 1?
Automotive News | January 21, 2008 - 12:01 am EST
DETROIT — The best-selling vehicle in the U.S. auto industry — the Ford F-series pickup — might lose its sales crown in 2008.
The full-sized pickup segment faces another tough year. Combine Ford Motor Co.'s already-shrinking lead with its strategy of cutting production and incentives, and the F series might not be able to fight off an incentive-laden Chevrolet Silverado for a 32nd straight year.
Ford marketing chief Jim Farley says another year at the top is "certainly our goal. But there are a lot of market forces, and we can't predict what competitors do."
With the race narrowing, it is crucial that Ford successfully launch the new version of its crown jewel: the re-engineered and restyled 2009 F-150. The new model, going on sale this fall, features new exterior styling meant to echo its big brother, the Super Duty.
The F-150 will face a re-engineered and restyled 2009 Dodge Ram, also on sale this fall. For the first time, Dodge is offering a true crew cab model, and Dodge executives expect the updated Ram to increase its share.
Meanwhile, General Motors' top sales executive says the automaker wants to boost pickup share and is willing to increase incentives.
If Ford goes for profit over volume — and Chevrolet pumps up incentives in pursuit of the title — not even that updated F-150 will be enough to keep the F series on top.
"We'll see at the end of the year," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said last week at the Detroit auto show. "We're going to keep our dealers competitive, but we have a very specific strategy that says we're going to keep our inventories in line in a disciplined fashion."
The F series finished 2007 with U.S. sales of 690,589, down 13.2 percent. The Silverado, which was re-engineered and restyled for the 2007 model year, was just 72,332 units behind — the closest it's been since 1994.
A sampling of what's new in Ford's restyled and re-engineered 2009 F-150 pickup
-- New high-end Platinum series
-- Longer crew cab model
-- Flat load floor and fold-up rear seats in back of crew cab
-- Redesigned interiors
-- Stronger and lighter frame
-- New tailgate step
-- Longer leaf springs
Incentives for all big-pickup players except Ford and Toyota rose in December, according to Edmunds.com. Incentives on the F-150, one of the segment's oldest models, dropped to the middle of the pack: Ford spent $3,799 per vehicle on the F-150, while GM put an average of $718 less on the much fresher Silverado 1500.
Chevrolet picked up share in December and Ford lost share, even though the F series edged the Silverado in total sales.
But the Ford truck isn't likely to stay ahead in 2008 if Chevrolet maintains its higher inventory and spends a lot on incentives. The Silverado begins the year with 52,600 more units on the ground than the F series. That's not much less than the final sales margin between the two last year.
"Their inventory suggests to me that it's going to be a very expensive year in the full-sized-pickup segment," says Ford sales analyst George Pipas. "The one with the most inventory is going to dictate the price in the market."
And, he adds, "Normally in the full-sized-truck market, the one with the most inventory has the most sales."
Both manufacturers have scheduled intermittent production shutdowns of their pickups in the first quarter.
Handicapping the race
Will the Ford F-series pickup stay ahead of the Chevrolet Silverado to win the sales title in 2008?
Erich Merkle, industry analyst, IRN Inc.: No. "It might be tough for Ford to maintain that lead in 2008, simply because GM might be much more aggressive on the incentive front. (Ford has) chosen to pull back on production instead of offering large incentives to maintain sales, and I don't disagree with that strategy."
Jim Hall, industry analyst, 2953 Analytics: No. "I'd be surprised if Ford can (win) it, because there are a lot of things working to Chevrolet's advantage right now."
Jesse Toprak, senior analyst, Edmunds.com: No. "Not by much, but Chevy is likely to outsell Ford this year. Ford is competing with an older product with fresher models from GM and Toyota, and their incentives are not dramatically higher."
John Wolkonowicz, senior analyst, Global Insight: Yes. "We're assuming the new (F-150) comes on fairly strong. But I also believe that they'll incentivize the vehicles in any way they have to, to retain leadership, in spite of them saying they won't do that anymore. That's a real point of pride in the company."
Chevy eyes share
Chevrolet isn't likely to back off the pressure for the sales title.
"The momentum is certainly behind the Chevy trucks at the moment," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst at Edmunds.com.
GM expects to increase its pickup share this year, says the company's North American sales chief, Mark LaNeve.
"We're going to vigorously defend our truck share," LaNeve said last week at the auto show. "We gained share last year in full-sized pickups, full-sized utes and crossovers. We believe we can gain share again this year."
GM also is willing to increase incentive spending in 2008, LaNeve said.
That is something Ford doesn't want to do — even to keep the sales crown, apparently.
The foundation of CEO Alan Mulally's bid to return Ford Motor to profitability is producing vehicles to match natural customer demand. Executives have sworn off the old patterns of juicing incentives just to keep the factories running. Last June, Ford shuttered an F-150 plant in Norfolk, Va.
With the revised F-150 coming, Ford must manage its inventories this year even more carefully than Chevy.
"You want as little inventory in stock when you bring the new model out," says industry analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit. "That's really going to be the deciding factor."
And any lift Ford gets from the updated model will be a bigger factor in 2009 than this year.
Even if the F series loses the sales title to the Silverado in 2008, GM's victory could end up as a one-year blip. The 2009 F-150 is good enough to keep Ford in front once it has a full year of sales under its belt,
predicts Erich Merkle, an industry analyst with IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Says Merkle: "I think they can get it back in 2009."