Either Ford's product planning is in complete disarray, or the company is impressively agile. You can read it either way, but I think it's the latter.
A year ago, Ford laid out carefully crafted plans to bring the Grand C-Max to the American market. It methodically explained why this 7-passenger cross/utility vehicle was perfect for U.S. consumers, instead of the smaller 5-seat C-Max.
Then, only months later, the company switched gears and said it would only bring the 5-seat C-Max to the U.S. Moreover, it announced it would only offer it with a hybrid-electric powertrain, along with a plug-in electric version, to U.S. consumers. Months, if not years, of planning was tossed out the window. What changed?
I think it goes back to how jealous every auto maker is of Toyota's success with the Prius. Remember, the Prius is the only hybrid in the world that sells in decent volume. Every other HEV is a sales flop, including those sold by Toyota. And yet, the Prius' success has imbued Toyota with the mantle of environmental leadership, a halo effect that benefits the company in a variety of unexpected ways.
Ford's own market research shows any auto maker perceived to have the best fuel economy also is perceived to have the best quality. Its cars also are considered to offer the best value and resale. And, a fuel-efficient auto maker also is considered to be a good corporate citizen.
Ford must have reasoned that if it can outsell the Prius, it can get those same accolades. But how does it do that? Only a small sliver of car buyers are interested in HEVs and EVs. They comprise perhaps 2% of the market. But one of the reasons so many consumers choose the Prius is that it doesn't look like anything else on the road. It's a way to show others you are doing your part to save the planet.
In the pursuit of uniqueness, some auto makers have resorted to hybrid badges or even distinct front fascias. But that doesn't pass muster with most eco-minded car buyers. They want everyone to instantly recognize they are driving a hybrid.
With the Prius, there is no confusion. It only comes as a hybrid and it has a unique silhouette.
That's when the light bulb must have come on at Ford regarding the C-Max. Ford recognized it needed a vehicle that only would be sold as a hybrid, and that it had to have a unique silhouette. Voila, they realized, the C-Max fits the bill.
But to get the best possible fuel economy, Ford had to opt for the smaller C-Max rather than the bigger Grand C-Max. And it would have to get rid of the hybrid version of the Escape CUV, because it could siphon off sales.
Yes, the product plan originally called for the Grand C-Max, but there is a bigger prize at stake. And so the old plan was given the heave-ho in favor of a bold move to top Toyota.
Toyota is not standing still. It's expanding the Prius line-up, so it's a moving target. The war starts in 2012 when the C-Max arrives in dealerships.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of TV's “Autoline” and “Autoline Daily,” an online video newscast.