DETROIT — "D'oh!" What was Ford thinking?
Belittling your product probably isn't a great marketing tool, but two top Ford Motor Co. executives recently criticized the looks of the new Taurus sedan, with one comparing it to doofus cartoon character Homer Simpson.
While speaking in Detroit this month, CEO Alan Mulally and Derrick Kuzak, head of global product development, took shots at the current Taurus, with Kuzak likening its looks to the portly, balding, doughnut-devouring Simpson.
During a speech to industry insiders, Mulally hinted that a new, nicer-looking Taurus is coming in the next year or so, adding a crack about the current car.
"The new Taurus that you're going to see in the next year or so is the one we should have made originally," he said while addressing a seminar. "It is just fabulous."
Kuzak went even further while speaking to a group of analysts. He projected a slide with Simpson standing above a Ford Five Hundred, the sedan that was renamed the Taurus last year. Next to Homer were cartoon images of Superman and Mr. Incredible, each above small drawings of sleeker versions of the Taurus that could hint at the next generation of the family sedan.
"As you walk from a Homer Simpson design to a Superman design, it's all about millimeters matter," Kuzak told the analysts. He pointed to minuscule differences in the bumpers and the proportion between the window glass and the body side. He also noted the need to fill the wheel well with the right-sized tires.
"That's only delivered when the engineering team does not dumb down the design because of engineering and manufacturing feasibility concerns," Kuzak said. The public could listen to the audio and view the slides on the company's investor Web site, but Ford pulled the Homer Simpson slide after a reporter's inquiries Monday.
Seldom do auto company executives criticize vehicles on the market, fearing such talk could hurt sales.
"It's really unique," said David Koehler, a clinical marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But since it came from the CEO and another top executive, Koehler said it's likely a concerted effort.
"It wasn't a rogue V.P. that was frustrated with the lack of innovation," Koehler said.
Industry analysts say criticism of the Taurus shows that Ford is becoming more candid about recognizing and fixing problems.
"I think they're being sincere, intellectually honest that the design at Ford has really lagged," said Bear Stearns analyst Peter Nesvold. "Something about Mulally's leadership has allowed people to be a little freer about their views."
In 2006, Ford let the Taurus name die, replacing its flagship family sedan with the Five Hundred.
One of Mulally's first big decisions after being hired away from aviation giant Boeing Co. was to revive the Taurus name last year, placing it on an updated version of the Five Hundred that was given minor exterior changes and a new engine and transmission. Mulally has said he couldn't understand why the company would scrap the Taurus, once the best-selling car in the U.S.
The move, though, failed to resuscitate already sagging sales. Ford sold only 68,178 Taurus and Five Hundred sedans last year, down 19 percent from 2006.
"Let's call it for what it is. It's been a failure," said Kevin Tynan, an auto analyst with New York-based Argus Research. "I don't think you can rename it Taurus and think it makes a difference."
Taurus/Five Hundred sales were only a fraction of Toyota Motor Corp.'s popular Camry, which again was the top-selling car in America last year at 473,108.
Ford's strategy could be aimed at drawing attention to its increased quality and better designs, Koehler said. It also could backfire, leaving the public with the impression that Ford doesn't believe in the existing car, Koehler said.
But Richard Bazzy, who owns two Ford dealerships in Pittsburgh's northern suburbs, said he can sell the current car despite the comments.
"Everything about the car is fabulous, but it does look like Homer Simpson," he said, commending Mulally for making a necessary change. "The only way you can solve a problem is to correctly identify the problem."
Ford spokesman Mark Truby said there is no concerted effort to criticize the car. The executives merely wanted to show that with more design freedom, Ford will produce better-looking vehicles, and the Homer Simpson reference was an effort to bring humor to the presentation.
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, likes the honesty and said Ford couldn't call the existing Taurus a success.
"You've to go be realistic in this business," he said. "Just because you call something a beautiful flower doesn't mean it's a beautiful flower."
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