It now seems to be officially official: Ford Motor Company will cease building the 2011 Ford Ranger on December 22 after nearly three decades of producing the small pickup. Of course, the easy joke here is that that's also how long it's been since the Ranger was last redesigned, but in many ways, it's Ford who got the last laugh.
After all, while the Ranger hasn't literally been left unchanged for the past 30 or so years, Ford certainly hasn't lavished it with with a continuous stream of updates. Yet the Blue Oval still sold 55,364 of them last year, just a few hundred units below the truck's 2009 numbers. And although the Ranger has seen declining sales this year, they really haven't declined all that much: 23,544 new customers have bought a Ranger through May, representing a modest 2.6 percent drop over the same period in 2010. Which happens to be a better performance so far this year than achieved by the Ford Taurus, Ford Mustang or Ford Flex. At this stage, I'd say that means the Ranger is still producing a pretty nice return on the automaker's investment.
I'm not pitching the idea that Ford should keep the current Ranger in production, but I think its sales do show where an opportunity for Ford exists that would help it deal with the growing number of challenges that are seriously impacting the company's momentum.
SYNC or Swim
Chief among them is the hubbub around Ford's much-heralded SYNC system. Although there's always debate over the credibility of the industry's highly publicized third-party quality surveys, there's no escaping that, at the very least, they can be a key gauge of consumer perceptions. And as evidenced by the latest of these studies, in which Ford quality ratings took a notable hit, those perceptions are definitely slipping.
It's not just customer frustrations over SYNC that are causing this—unfortunately for Ford—but the SYNC situation is still an important factor that's all the more important because it goes right to one of the automaker's most visible differentiators. Ford has invested a lot of time and money into supporting the system as both a customer benefit and an advantage over rivals, but it's getting squeezed from both ends. Not only are customers wondering about those supposed "advantages," but the other companies are now rolling out rival setups—like the Hyundai/Kia UVO. In addition, there are growing rumblings from the government about how these systems can add to the dangers of distracted driving.
If SYNC ultimately turns into a failure, it could be as bad for Ford as it would be if customers suddenly rejected Toyota's hybrid technology.
C-MAX v. Prius v
The Blue Oval's next technological leap will present difficulties of its own. Ford's decision to ramp up its vehicle-electrification efforts will finally move beyond the hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKZ and Ford Escape later this year, with the launch of the Ford Focus Electric. That also will be followed by hybrid and plug-in hybrid models of the new Ford C-MAX, as well as yet another next-gen hybrid, details of which haven't been released.
Now, I'm all for this kind of thing, but I'm also realistic enough to realize that just because Ford is going to be offering these vehicles doesn't mean they're going to sell. Just look at the low sales rates for the Honda Insight and Honda CR-Z. Or consider that no other hybrid model from any automaker—including Toyota itself—has been able to earn anywhere near the number of buyers the Toyota Prius has.
Speaking of the Prius, let's recall that a second vehicle to wear that badge—the Prius v—is set to launch this fall, and it will be a direct competitor to the C-MAX. Both the C-Max and Prius v will be five-seat hybrids aimed primarily at active families who want added fuel efficiency but also need added cargo space. Ford will have the advantage of offering a plug-in hybrid version of the C-MAX, but in this kind of direct head-to-head competition between very similar vehicles it would be hard to bet against the established Prius name. Oh, I know there's room for both in the market, but, in theory, there's room for both the Prius and the Insight, too.
Picking up Where the Ranger Left Off
But how about this: One of the biggest reasons the Ranger is still earning more than 4,500 sales a month is because of its relatively low cost. The truck has an MSRP that starts at $18,160—$40 less than the least expensive Focus hatchback—and I think it's safe to say its transaction costs are lower than for the Focus as well. The Ranger is a low-cost piece of transportation, and, as I've mentioned in the past, the number of vehicles that now fall into that category is shrinking quickly, even though significant demand for this type of vehicle still remains.
Ford has been moving in the opposite direction lately, but it could still play the basic-transportation card with an upcoming hybrid and perhaps leave the company flush with success.