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Clouds gather over Fairlane's future

Doubt fire: Speculation surrounds the future of Ford's long-wheelbase models.

Doubts over the future of Ford’s long-wheelbase cars will scare off fleets: expert

27 Apr 2006

SPECULATION about the future of Ford Australia’s under-performing long-wheelbase Fairlane and LTD models could be the axe that wields a fatal blow to next-generation versions.

Reacting to media reports last week that dark clouds were growing over the future of Ford’s long-wheelbase models, independent fleet analyst Tony Robinson said any emerging doubt over the future of the models could send a negative message to fleets, which make up the bulk of Fairlane and LTD purchases.

"The signs were on the wall 18 months ago with these type of vehicles," said Mr Robinson, who runs independent Melbourne-based fleet risk management company Sureplan.

He said any prestige long-wheelbase vehicles had to measure up in areas of volumes, market share and profitability to remain a viable part of manufacturing in Australia.

But he believes Ford faces a difficult time in the short term over the future of these cars because they have been so intrinsically linked to the company’s manufacturing history in Australia.

The Fairlane has been a part of Ford since 1967, when it became the first Australian-built and designed long-wheelbase car to be sold here.

"To move away from something that has been a big part of the family is like cutting off an arm," he said.

Mr Robinson said feedback from fleets was that when you are on a downhill spiral "you tend to just pick up further negative comment – it’s like a rolling stone gathering moss".

"And I think this stone is increasingly rolling a lot faster downhill," he said.

According to Sureplan, fleet buyers and some individual taxi operators and hotel proprietors make up the bulk of Fairlane and LTD purchases, but government departments had increasingly moved away from the models.

27 center imageMr Robinson said he felt Ford "must be very close to drawing a line in the sand" over the future of the vehicles. With the imminent arrival of the new VE Commodore, Mr Robinson said he also believed Holden could possibly roll out the new Statesman at the same time, based on its strengths as an export car.

Traditionally the Statesman/Caprice models have arrived a few months after the Commodore.

"That’s my feeling, because there is such a lot dependent upon it as an export vehicle," he said. "But for Ford it’s a different story.

"There is going to be some serious decision-making there very shortly."Ford Australia spokesperson Sinead McAlary said no decision was imminent onthe fate of Ford’s LWB cars.

Ford Australia president Tom Gorman has admitted previously that the company was closely monitoring the situation and remained committed to Falcon and its other models.

As recently as last week he said Ford’s product diversification was "pretty good".

However, rising fuel prices and increasing competition in the LWB segment mayrefocus attention on the performance of the big Ford sedans.

From January to March, Ford sold 288 Fairlanes, down 24 per cent from the 379 it sold over the same period last year. The range-topping LTD managed 13 sales in the first three months this year compared to 18 for the same period last year.

Last year Ford sold 1980 Fairlane/LTDs and 2190 in 2004, comparable or even better than some low-volume importers.

Another factor in any decision to axe the Fairlane/LTD is the station wagon model variant, which uses the same platform and remains a viable strong seller among fleets.

In the sales stakes, Holden’s Statesman and Caprice models fare better than itsdirect rival, partly due to the fact that Middle East exports underpin sales in Australia, a deliberate Holden strategy to ensure the continued viability of its LWB vehicles.

Holden has sold 548 Statesmans and 127 Caprices in the first three months of 2006, with year-to-date sales trailing last year by a significant margin.

Both the Ford and Holden have few competitors in the VFACTS sub-$100,000 upper-large segment but the arrival of the Chrysler 300C has sharply focused thesegmentation.

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