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Ford Sets Sights On China's High-End Market

Unveiling the new Ford Taurus at Auto Shanghai 2015
Unveiling the new Ford Taurus at Auto Shanghai 2015
Bao Zhiming

SHANGHAI — The Ford Motor Company is taking a notably bling-bling approach to this year's Auto Shanghai 2015 exhibition, leaving the peppy-sporty market to competitors like Toyota and Volkswagen as it angles instead for China's high rollers.

As part of its push for the Asian giant's upscale markets, the U.S. auto manufacturer debuted its Taurus "premium business sedan," along with a pair of seven-seaters: the Ford New Explorer SUV and the Ford Edge.

The group has also gone back to pushing its Lincoln brand, which was forced to withdraw in 2008 due to sluggish sales but returned to the Chinese market at the end of last year. Lincoln products featured in the auto show include the mid-large-sized MKX and Navigator, as well as a Lincoln Continental limousine concept car, which will be available next year as a limited edition.

"Ford Taurus brings together Ford's best global design and development teams and resources. It's a brand new sedan model in which the needs of upscale clients are at the core of development," said Ma Ruiteng, president of Changan Ford Automobile, at the car show press conference.

Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln's global CEO, also spoke at the event. "China's luxury car market is in a fast developing phase and will be an important market that Lincoln looks to develop in the years to come. Before the end of 2016, we plan to introduce five models here," he said.

The vehicles presented at this year's Auto Shanghai exhibition, according to one industry source, mark a shift for Ford, which used to be synonymous with youth-targeted sports cars. "Obviously it intends to cut into China's upscale and luxury auto market," the source said.

New opportunities

Interestingly, the strategy shift comes at a time when China's premium car market is experiencing something of a slowdown. Its 30% growth rate last year paled in comparison to the 83.5% increase it posted in 2010.

Ford insists, nevertheless, that it has reason to be be optimistic. Market research, one Ford insider pointed out, suggests that middle-aged Chinese consumers are enjoying increased purchasing power. They're also keen to branch out from conventional front-line luxury brands such as Audi, Mercedes Benz and BMW. Last year, for example, Infiniti and Cadillac sales grew by 80% and 50% respectively while BMW sales only increased 16.7%.

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Ford, still seen as "a young man's sports car" — Photo: Tim Wang

In its latest Chinese Luxury Car Market Outlook, McKinsey, a consulting firm, predicted that by 2016 China's luxury car sales are likely to exceed that of the U.S. market, and in 2020 China's luxury car market will still retain a 12% annual growth.

"Divine and distinguished"

"How we launch our flagship product, the Taurus, is based on a great deal of research. We found that it appeals very much to business people and in particular to the self-made entrepreneurs", Stephen T. Odell, Ford's executive vice-president for Global Marketing, Sales and Services, told Caixin.

The key, according to Bill Ford, the company's executive chairman, is to offer Chinese consumers something new and different. "The Chinese market plays a very critical role in our entire global map. We regard our development in China's upscale market as an important and long-term procedure," he said. "Ford wants to bring what Chinese customers haven't experienced or haven't been satisfied with before. For instance, an even more distinguished and divine sense that other brands can't offer."

Shedding its image?

Ford's confidence aside, it still faces a number of obstacles. The luxury field, for one thing, is crowded. Competitors include not only the market-leading brands Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but also second-line brands like Cadillac, Lexus, Volvo, Infiniti, Citroen DS, which are pushing their own new models and making prices ever more attractive.

In the case of its Lincoln branch, Ford has the additional problem of limited sales channels. Right now it only has 11 Lincoln dealers in nine Chinese cities. Having so few distributors puts the company at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering models, providing follow-up services and general sales marketing. Ford plans to address the problem by expanding to 60 dealers in 50 cities by the end of 2016.

A third problem is that the Taurus — the model on which Ford pins such high hopes — falls within the most competitive price segment. Ford plans to sell the Taurus in the 300,000 to 400,000 yuan range ($49,000-$65,000).

Ford's biggest problem of all may be its current brand image. "Due to the overwhelming success of the Ford Focus, Chinese people think of Fords as being a young man's sports car," one industry insider explained.

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