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Ford rolls out updated versions of Escape, Mercury Mariner

Ford rolls out updated versions of Escape, Mercury Mariner

A day after announcing the biggest annual loss in its 103-year history, Ford Motor Co. rolled out updated versions of two small sport utility vehicles that are among the keys to the company's turnaround plans.
The 2008 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner models, manufactured in suburban Kansas City, were unveiled Friday by a delegation that included Ford President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally.
This week, Ford said it lost $12.7 billion (euro9.84 billion) in 2006 but expected to be profitable again by 2009, as it shifts emphasis from its bulkier SUV lines toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and SUVs.
"The Kansas City plant is really, really important," Mulally said. "Probably the two biggest areas in our product line are the small SUVs, like the Escape and the Mariner, and the F-1 series truck, which has been the No. 1 truck for 30 years."
Ford invested $100 million (euro77.5 million) in the Claycomo plant to produce the updated Mariner and Escape. The company expects about 20 percent of its sales over the next 20 years to come from its small SUVs and crossovers, Mulally said.
The Claycomo plant also produces the F-150, and on Friday gave a sneak preview of a new package that will go on sale later this spring. One company official said the package, variously labeled "midbox" and "Tough Box," would be targeted to commercial buyers.
The 2008 SUV models, redesigned inside and out, feature new extras, including standard MP3 audio jacks and materials that promise a quieter ride, but they will carry smaller stickers than their predecessors.
Gas versions of the Escape, the best-selling small SUV, will start at $19,246 (euro14,918), with hybrid gasoline-electric versions starting at $25,740 (euro19,952), an average decrease of $1,100 (euro853) from the recommended retail price of 2007 models. The Mariner's average suggested price drops by $1,300 (euro1,008), with gas versions starting at $21,395 (euro16,584) and hybrids at $26,430 (euro20,487).
Mulally, brought in from aerospace giant Boeing Co. four months ago to lead Ford's turnaround effort, said increased efficiency allowed for the price cut.
"We're continually improving our productivity and quality," he said. "Good companies improve their productivity and quality by 3 to 5 percent, and that's the track that we're on."
Curtis Walters, general sales manager at a Ford dealership in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kansas, said the recent release of the Edge crossover had generated the biggest buzz among potential buyers.
"The Edge just hit, so that seems to be where the action is," Walters said. "Now that the Edge is here, we're starting to get people asking about the Escape and the Mariner."
On Friday, Ford also said that the new Mariner and Escape would have three-year resale values 10 to 11 points higher than previous models.
The new F-150 package took only six months to go from the planning stage to the final version, said Ken Macfarlane, Ford's director of truck manufacturing operations. Typically, he said, such a modification would take 18 months to develop and produce.
"The great news is that it's kind of grass roots supported," Macfarlane said. "Much of the thought process was developed here, using our product specialists, and we're bringing it to market at record speed, so we're delighted.
"Some of the people we've talked to, some of the commercial users, can't wait to get their hands on it," he said. "We're really looking forward to it."
Shares of Ford were up 13 cents at $8.35 in afternoon trading Friday on the New York Stock Exchange, where they have traded in a 52-week range of $6.06 to $9.48.
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