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Ford’s Aussie Escort hits China for six

Rising star: Chinese customers have embraced the Ford Escort, making it a top 10 seller.

Born-again Escort spearheads Ford growth in China, despite market swing to SUVs

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Ford logo31 Mar 2016

By RON HAMMERTON

THE Australian-developed Ford Escort has emerged as the Blue Oval’s trump card in China, topping the Ford sales list and carving a comfortable place in the passenger car top 10 in the world’s biggest motor market.

Sales of the car – called Fu Rui Si in Chinese – have now exceeded 250,000 in little more than a year since it was launched in January 2015, silencing some critics who labelled the small sedan too pricey and too conservative to woo many Chinese customers.

The result is a fillip for Ford Asia Pacific Vehicle Development whose Australian team in Victoria played a major role in the design and engineering of the Chinese-focussed family car, before it was launched as a replacement for the superseded Focus Classic little more than a year ago.

Built by one of two Ford joint venture partnerships in China, Changan Ford Automobile, at its Chongqing plant in western China, the Focus-based Escort is now successfully going toe to toe with well-established rivals, such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Volkswagen Jetta.

Last month, when Chinese vehicle sales stalled – mostly due to an earlier-than-usual Chinese New Year – the Escort pushed ahead by 15 per cent, to 13,173 units or about 20 per cent of Ford China’s 63,350 February sales.

The Escort’s success helped to cushion a rough February sales result for Ford, restricting the brand’s year-on-year February sales decline to 9.0 per cent.

Year to date, Ford’s position in China is much rosier, with sales up 18 per cent to 194,182 units, thanks to a record January result led by 28,980 Escort sales.

Ford’s 2016 sales performance also has been helped by another new model with substantial Australian design and engineering input, the Taurus large sedan.

Last month, Taurus provided 3040 units for Ford’s monthly tally, according to official China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) figures.

As well, the Australian developed Everest SUV is also made and sold in China by Ford’s other joint venture, with Jiangling Automobile, taking the number of Ford models with Aussie development links to three.

That might grow to four if Fiesta engineering mules spotted by GoAuto at Ford Asia Pacific’s You Yangs proving ground outside Melbourne are, as we have speculated, the groundwork for a smaller sibling for Escort.

Ford’s Australia design and engineering team has been the go-to squad to turn western vehicles into affordable transport for emerging markets, especially China and India.

Escort is thought to be based on the superseded Focus C1 platform, reimagined as a budget family sedan, gaining new sheet-metal and a suspension tuned for China’s rough roads.

Although some journalists in China claimed at launch in January last year that the Escort was too conservative and overpriced to cause much of a ripple in the overcrowded budget small car segment, the Escort has proved the critics wrong by attracting plenty of middle-class Chinese who appreciate its value and spaciousness in the back seat and boot.

Powered by an 84kW/132Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine lifted from the Chinese Fiesta, the Escort comes with a choice of five-speed manual gearbox or six-speed automatic transmission.

The small engine qualifies Escort for Chinese government tax breaks for cars with engines below 1.6 litres. Because of this, more than half of all passenger cars now have such small engines.

Alloy wheels are standard, but one glaring omission – no doubt for cost-cutting reasons – is the omission of a Sync LCD touch screen.

Despite apparent shortcomings, the Escort has been ranked as high as seventh on monthly sedan sales lists – higher than any Ford before it in China.

According to China Auto Web, the best ranked Ford passenger car in 2014 was the Ford Focus hatchback, at 13th.

In 2015, the Escort had displaced the Focus as the top Ford, achieving 10th place, despite entering the year with a standing start and zero badge recognition.

Escort’s success is made all the more laudable because it has been achieved against a Chinese consumer swing away from traditional sedans to SUVs. In February, SUV sales surged 44 per cent, while sedan sales fell 17.8 per cent.

So far this year, Chinese motor vehicle sales are up 4.4 per cent, but CAAM says that figure has been inhibited by the annual New Year shutdown, and should accelerate to about 6.0 per cent through 2016 for a final national tally of 26 million vehicles.

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