I’ve been driving the Ford S-Max Crossover for about a week now through England and Wales. The S-Max is a derivative of Ford’s European Minivan – the Galaxy – and its European Mid-Size Car – the Mondeo. Very impressive vehicle in many ways. It was selected as the European 2007 Car of the Year as judged by 58 journalists across 22 European countries. Apparently, Alan Mulally, Ford’s new CEO is trying to bring the S-Max to the USA in 2009 or so. Will the S-Max work in America?
Is S-Max a Crossover SUV, Minivan, Station Wagon or Something Un-Identifiable?
First, what is it? We at VehicleVoice and AutoPacific have found that if a buyer cannot categorize a vehicle, i.e. figure out if it is a Minivan or SUV or Wagon, they will shy away from it. This is what happened to the Chrysler Pacifica and the Mercedes R-Type. Ford positions the S-Max as a Crossover SUV – a segment that is booming in the USA. At a glance, S-Max has little “SUV” ambiance. It is a very useful MPV – meaning multi-purpose vehicle – but where is the SUV DNA? S-Max has a very fast windshield with “canard” windows between the windshield and the A-Pillar. This gives a very sporty silhouette, but may yield a shape that is too Minivan-like.
The S-Max is a seven-passenger vehicle with a small third-row seat. The third row easily folds flat for loading luggage. If S-Max were introduced in the USA, how would S-Max fit among the other Ford Crossover SUVs – the 5-passenger Ford Escape, 5-passenger Ford Edge, and the 7-Passenger Ford Taurus X (Freestyle)? It is not as SUV-like as Escape and Edge – maybe similar to the SUV DNA of Freestyle/Taurus X.
S-Max, in some ways, comes across as similar to the Mazda CX-7 or a slightly smaller version of the Mazda CX-9. It does not come across as similar to the larger General Motors Lambda Crossover SUVs like the Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia or Buick Enclave.
Highlander Evolves with More Size and Power
Ahead of sales in July 2007, Toyota used its traditional opening press conference of the 2007 Chicago auto show to launch the 2008 Highlander. Toyota’s new Highlander keeps its personality as a car-based crossover SUV, updated to the latest Camry/Avalon platform. The new Highlander is bigger and heavier, but Toyota gives it more power, with both the Hybrid and new standard 3.5L V6 estimated to deliver 270HP. The Hybrid goes on sale shortly after the standard model.
Highlander already offered a third-row seat, but the extra three inches in wheelbase and four inches in length should make for a more comfortable interior. The new size is a bit bigger than the Honda Pilot and the same length as the Chevrolet Equinox. It is bigger than the Mazda CX-7 and Ford Edge, but smaller than Mazda’s CX-9 or the newly renamed Ford Taurus X (the XSUV formerly known as the Ford Freestyle). Highlander is better sized for those using the third row as occasional-use seating, instead of emergency seats.
So, the question is whether or not the new 2008 out-Pilots the excellent Honda Pilot?
VehicleVoice managing partner and AutoPacific president George Peterson contributed to this Detroit News article on vehicle naming. Much of the discussion at this week’s Chicago Auto Show is about name changes around the industry.
A moniker can make a car, but there’s no secret formula
February 9, 2007: Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News
• Ford changed the names of Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego to Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. It also renamed the Freestyle the Taurus X.
• incoln moved to an alphabetical system, Zephyr became MKZ.
• Dodge is replacing the Stratus sedan with the Avenger.
• GM’s Pontiac division is replacing the Grand Prix with the Pontiac G8.
CHICAGO — Cars of the future are supposed to take center stage at auto shows, but it was names from days past that generated some of the biggest buzz in the Windy City this week.
Ford Motor Co.’s decision to revive the Taurus name and give it to its slow-selling Five Hundred sedan, announced this week at the Chicago Auto Show, had journalists, analysts and executives alike critiquing the strategy and wondering whether it would become the latest trend.
It’s not an idle question. Naming vehicles is a major undertaking, with automakers spending millions to cultivate and market each new moniker. The brand equity of mainstays like Civic, Camry and Taurus is valued far beyond that of any high-priced advertising blitz.
And with the U.S. auto market crowded with vastly more models than even a decade ago, finding the right name is more difficult — and more vital — than ever.
“Naming is a big, big deal,” said George Peterson, president of consulting firm AutoPacific Inc., a Tustin, Calif market research and product consulting firm. “You can always argue with the names they use. But you can’t beat a good name.”
Detroit’s Big Three automakers have been criticized for their habit of trying to launch new names to revive tarnished brands rather than sticking with the names and improving the vehicles.
“Even if the car has kind of run its course and started to wane, you’re better off investing in marketing the current product than coming up with a brand new name,” said Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds.com, an online auto shopping site.
Bringing back an old name is a compromise of sorts, offering several benefits over creating new monikers, notably eliminating the need to spend a fortune trying to create brand awareness.
Ford is hardly alone in this back-to-the-future strategy.
DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group hauled out its old Avenger name this year for the vehicle replacing its Dodge Stratus sedan.
General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet resurrected the Malibu name in the late 1990s and Impala in 2000.
The Chevy Camaro and Dodge Charger were gone, but the Charger is back and Camaro is coming.
The allure of old names is growing as some automakers discover that alpha-numeric titles favored by luxury brands don’t work for everybody.
Those almost code-like names are meant to build recognition for the brand rather than the vehicles. And it can work. The mega-success of the 300 sedan put Chrysler back in the spotlight. And Cadillac’s STS, CTS and SRX, helped remake the brand’s image from old and worn to edgy and cool.
Other attempts have been disastrous, however. Honda Motor Co.’s Acura lost an estimated $1.5 billion in sales by renaming its Legend sedan the RL, Peterson said. “The joke was that RL stood for Ruined Legend.”
Reviving old names can backfire, too. If a name is good enough to resurrect, the argument goes, it probably shouldn’t have been buried in the first place.
“You can bring back names from the past,” Brauer said, “but unless the product is good, it’s going to be a short-lived run.”
While many companies tinker with names, Ford’s high-profile financial problems coupled with the Taurus’ iconic status made its move a major attention-grabber. Many at the auto show probed other automakers for hints of similar moves:
• Will Pontiac’s G8 rear-wheel-drive sedan get the Grand Prix name? (No)
• Does Toyota regret going with the xA, xB, xD naming system for its Scion brand? (Not at all)
• What do the folks at Chrysler think about bringing back old names? (Won’t say)
GM product czar Bob Lutz was peppered with name-related questions after the unveiling of the G8 Thursday. Critics have said Pontiac’s letter-number theme drains some of the feeling from a brand meant to trigger an emotional response in drivers.
GM is sticking with the strategy. When asked about Ford’s decision, Lutz said he would not comment on “bringing back a name that was killed for good reason.”
Other Ford rivals declined to speak on the record, while making it clear they thought the idea was misguided.
Ford, however, could very well be vindicated. Most analysts say the Taurus revival makes sense and dealers love the idea. So do drivers who became fans of the Taurus when it redefined the family sedan in the 1980s.
More than 80 percent of consumers recognize Taurus as a Ford product, compared to about 9 percent for the Five Hundred, according to research by Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. “Ford did the right thing reviving the Taurus and Sable nameplates,” he wrote in a note about his study.
Just ask consumer Michael Wheatley of Bardstown, Ky.: “Smart move,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Very smart move.”