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Ford to launch Figo in Spark attack

Given 'em curry: Ford's Indian-made, Australian-designed Figo is on the agenda for Australia.

Sub-Fiesta compact from Asia to give Ford Oz blanket baby-car coverage

7 Dec 2010

FORD’S homegrown Figo has emerged the odds-on favourite to represent the Blue Oval in Australia’s burgeoning sub-$13,000 light car segment as early as next year.

GoAuto has learned the Figo – a full-sized ‘B-segment’ model developed by Ford Australia off a German base for the Indian market (where it is built) as well as Africa and other emerging markets – is the most likely candidate to do battle with Australia’s newest sub-light model, Holden’s Barina Spark.

The Figo would be a direct rival not only for the Spark (priced from $12,490), Suzuki’s pioneering Alto hatch (from $11,790) and a plethora of other new or heavily upgraded sub-light or A-segment vehicles from Asian nations including China, but also cut-price B-cars such as Nissan’s new K13 Micra, which went on sale this month priced from $12,990.

Marking a departure from Ford Australia’s European small-car approach, the strategy would see the Blue Oval brand join an increasing number of manufacturers offering multiple vehicles in one category.

27 center imageFrom top: Ford Figo, Ford Fiesta hatch and sedan, Suzuki Alto and Holden Barina Spark.

If Ford’s baby-car plan comes to fruition, the five-door/five-seater hatchback will slot under the high-flying Fiesta to give the company a two-pronged light-car approach.

However, Ford Australia’s all-new sub-Fiesta model remains up to 18 months away from local dealerships, as the company works through the intricacies of bringing a low-cost hatch to market.

“Clearly there’s always an opportunity there (with Figo), but you have got to get the right car at the right price,” Ford Australia general marketing manager David Katic told GoAuto at this week’s launch of the upgraded WT Fiesta range in Adelaide.

“We are looking very closely at that sub-$15,000 area – but we won’t get anything in Australia in the next 12 to 18 months.”

If it is sold here, the Figo could be sourced from either India, where it has sold well beyond initial expectations since being launched there in February this year, or China. Ford Australia is also developing a variation of the Figo for the Chinese market.

But with the new Micra set to make hay for Nissan, as well as the flood of cars expected from China beginning with the Chery J1 in the first quarter of next year – and also including the first passenger car from Australia’s first Chinese brand, Great Wall Motors – Ford Australia is keen to become a light-car segment leader sooner rather than later.

“It is clear that with cheap cars flooding in from China and India, we have to do something, and soon,” a Ford source told GoAuto.

Ford Australia is not new to this end of the segment, successfully selling the Kia-built, Mazda 121-based WA-WF Festiva from 1991 to 2000, before having to relinquish the South Korean car when Hyundai took Kia over in 1999.

However, its 1999-2003 Ka replacement out of Europe failed due to the lack of an automatic transmission, limited practicality (three doors and four seats only), sub-B-segment sizing and high pricing. Similar problems preclude the Fiat 500-based Ka II from entering our shores this time around.

Asked if the Festiva name might be revived, a Ford source said the nameplate still had residual currency in the marketplace, but that a decade was a long time to be out of the market and the expected younger demographic to which the Figo would appeal might not even remember the name.

The Figo is a re-skinned and re-engineered version of the WP/WQ Fiesta sold in Australia from 2004 to 2008. It employs the B256 B-segment platform originally developed in Germany.

As GoAuto reported in August, it will spawn a family of derivatives such as the rumoured B474 B-Max seven-seat crossover, but that vehicle is unlikely to head Down Under.

Whether Ford will use the 52kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, or 51kW/160Nm 1.4-litre common-rail turbo-diesel units as currently fitted to the Figo, is unknown. The WP/WQ Fiesta range was mainly powered by a 74kW/146Nm 1.6-litre four-pot in Australia.

A development of the turbocharged 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine that powered the Ford Start concept car in China earlier this year may even be under consideration, our source revealed.

Back in August, Ford’s regional product development manager for B-segment vehicles in the Asia Pacific and Africa region, Ian Constance, told GoAuto that the Blue Oval recognised the need to provide a significantly different vehicle to consumers who were willing to pay extra for a ‘premium’ light car such as the Fiesta, compared with one that cost substantially less.

“We have big B-car plans,” Mr Constance said at the time. “We think we will see more growth in B-cars from second and third tier places.”

Mr Constance added that the B-segment market had “fragmented” enormously with “many different layers” that were quite clear and distinct to consumers in regions such as China.

Meanwhile, Ford Australia is hoping to strengthen its position in the upper end of the light-car segment with the revised Fiesta.

Now imported from Thailand as the WT (save for the WS Econetic, which continues to come out of Germany), the Fiesta has established itself as a popular player in the $17,000 to $23,000 price bracket, opening the way for a lower-cost proposition.

Since the current-shape WS was launched in early 2009, Ford’s market share in the segment has increased by almost 60 per cent, to 7.8 per cent of the class, while sales so far in 2010 are up 22.7 per cent over the same period last year.

“This has happened despite supply issues out of Germany,” Mr Katic said. “In Australia, the Fiesta has been a victim of its own success in Europe.”

The more keenly priced WT, combined with greater availability out of Thailand, should boost that further. Like Nissan, Ford hopes to be a top-three light-car player, with 15 per cent of the segment in Australia.

“We have been very frustrated about getting supply … but Thailand enables us to get to where we think this car will play at – with no more supply issues,” Mr Katic said.

Ford’s renewed light-car emphasis comes as Australia’s second-largest new-vehicle sales class undergoes its biggest shake-up in living memory.

While the Fiesta and its Mazda2 cousin have received significant revisions this year, and Honda’s Jazz will be facelifted in early 2011, a host of volume-selling models will enter a new generation over the next 12 months, including the Suzuki Swift, Kia Rio, Holden Barina and Toyota Yaris.

Kia is also considering the new-generation Picanto, to be unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March, while its parent company Hyundai is looking to replace the top-selling Getz around with a new Accent sedan around mid-2011. The new i20 could also be joined by the smaller i10, which is also built in India, next year.

Nissan has set the tone with the fourth-generation Micra, expecting to quadruple sales to 1500 a month once supplies ramp up at the Thai plant where it is built. New model variants for Micra – including a sedan – are also in the pipeline for Australia within 12 months.

Holden has already indicated it will be unable to price its redesigned ‘Aveo’ Barina hatch and sedan in the low-end of the light car segment when it arrives later next year and – like the i10 – the recently released (manual-only) MJ Barina Spark is a sub-B baby.

While a number of new light-sized Proton models are also expected in 2011, Nissan expects the light-car category to grow by almost a third by 2018.

From January to November this year, overall light car sales (sub-$25K) have soared 18.4 per cent over 2009 levels (124,212 versus 104,913 units), accounting for 13.1 per cent of the total passenger car market.

Of course, that’s still well below behind the small car segment 23.1 per cent (218,800 sales), which is having its own resurgence – up 11.5 per cent over the year-to-date November 2009 level of 196,301.

As new-vehicle sales charge towards the magic million mark for only the third time in history and oil prices resume their upward trajectory now that the global financial crisis is fading, Australia looks set to follow the rest of the world in a concerted effort to downsize the cars within its new-vehicle fleet.

What’s coming in light cars:
Honda Jazz January
Chery J1 January
Suzuki Swift February
Geely LC (Panda) June
Kia Rio July
Toyota Yaris September
Proton Persona/Gen.2 October
Holden Barina October
Hyundai i25 Third quarter 2011
Mitsubishi Colt 2012

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