Let's say your favorite baseball team is having some struggles, maybe not playing up to expectations, and then the local paper comes out with a story about how much confidence ownership still has in the team's manager. Good news for the coaching staff? Hardly. As most sports fans will tell you, those kinds of articles are usually a prelude to somebody losing a job. And I couldn't help but feel the same way when I read a recent piece in the "Detroit Free Press" about how the Blue Oval has no plans to axe the Ford Flex even though an awfully similar new Ford Explorer is about to debut.
Certainly, Flex volumes aren't where Ford wanted them to be when it got out of the minivan game a few years ago. The theory was that those mom-mobiles were part of a shrinking segment and that putting a different, more "manly" skin around roughly the same sort of capabilities would pull in more customers.
And that's pretty much what happened'”at General Motors. The General dumped its minivans and essentially replaced them with three big crossovers: The Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia. (The Saturn Outlook was originally in the mix, may it now rest in peace.)
Now, if we merge the minivan and big crossover segments into one category for three-row family haulers, we can see that the GM entries are doing pretty well against that mixed competition, although it's equally obvious that bailing entirely on minivans is costing the General some sales.
Surging interest in all things Chrysler resulted in an 80 percent jump in April sales for the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, which moved 13,367 units last month, but the Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Honda Pilot all sold between about 8,600 units and 10,600, with the Traverse coming in at over 9,000 April sales.
In other words, it's safe to say the Chrysler Group, Honda, GM and Toyota all have at least one product vying for leadership of the Krome on Cars big-family hauler segment. It's worth pointing out, too, that the Enclave and Acadia were both good for more than 4,500 in April.
The Blue Oval's competitor, the Flex, notched 3,876 April sales. In case anyone's interested'”and it doesn't seem like too many customers are'”the Flex's luxury counterpart, the Lincoln MKT, achieved a bare 625 sales last month.
The big question, and the one that inspired the "Free Press" story, is what happens to the Flex when the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer hits dealerships?
The current Explorer is still going strong, making 5,295 sales in April for a 42.2 percent year-over-year increase, a rate that's a near perfect match for the SUV's year-to-date numbers, which show a 41.2 sales increase through the first four months of the year.
Of course, when you consider all the advantages the new model will bring to the market, I wouldn't be surprised if the new Explorer's monthly numbers double. The next-gen model will have decades' worth of name recognition, a family friendlier unibody construction, the first application of Ford's high-efficiency four-cylinder EcoBoost engine and still a fair amount of SUV capabilities.
As for the Flex, Ford exec Dough Szopo, quoted by the "Freep," says "We think the kind of person that is buying a Flex will continue to do that despite the new Explorer."
That's some faint praise indeed, and Szopo seems to be putting an awful lot of faith in the Flex's polarizing design. After all, while Chevy offers both the Traverse and the similarly sized Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, the fact that the former is a unibody crossover and the latter is a body-on-frame SUV makes for a real differentiator.
With both the Flex and the Explorer going the crossover route, putting some distance between those two products in customers' minds will be a tougher process. The biggest difference between the Blue Oval vehicles will be ephemeral traits having to do with style and positioning.
And if we deconstruct Szopo's comment with that in mind, he's basically saying that, while people who want something styled specifically like the Flex will buy the Flex, customers who are in the market for a high-quality family hauler that offers three rows of seating are likely to skip right over it and buy the Explorer.
But I suppose that's better than skipping over the Flex to buy a Traverse.