Monday, January 01, 2007

The Ford Mustang ... STATION WAGON?!?

What? Did you read right? A station wagon Mustang?

In case you haven't heard, Ford is considering a Mustang station wagon and 4 door "coupe" version of it's Mustang.

Hey, I can understand the temptation -- the folks over at Chysler have been doing something similar with the awesome Magnum wagon, and new Challenger.

A couple of thoughts -- the Challenger thing is a nifty ride, but I've always thought that Chrysler polluted the original recipe by doing what they did -- and I'm not alone.

The Magnum is a different story -- if I was going to ever own a wagon, that'd be the ride. It simply looks like something so bad-ass that, well, it gets a nod of approval -- but it's its own brand, after all. It's not a Challenger Magnum station wagon, it's a Magnum in its own right.

Circling back to the Stang. Ford needs to do something similar -- call it what they want, make a Mustang-like wagon or 4-door, but please Ford, listen closely -- Don't pollute the Mustang brand with 4-doors and Wagons.

For starters, the V6 version of the Mustang already comes close do doing this. The only reason I'm somewhat forgiving of the V6 version is that they've done such a wonderful job of making it have some power and economy -- and not all kiddies should be roaming the country-side with 300 horsepower, after all. My nephew owns one -- it's sounds awesome.

But all kids, from 10 to 60 love the Mustang -- the present brand wealth has provided Ford with a much-needed shining star in a sea of bland brand neutrality and at a much-needed time. Ford, where Trucks have been job one for the past decade, has done so well with the Mustang and done it right for quite a long time. It would be such a shame for them to blow it by making something so ordinary as a wagon out of the thing.

What could they do instead (besides watch Chrysler dealers continue to suck away future family-oriented sporty car buyers with stuff like the Magnum and Challenger)? Well, I'm all about suggestion...

The Ranchero

What ever happened to this vehicle? Remember the days when Ford made a two-door car-based truck? Well, they likely still own the trademark to the name, so why not do some retro exploitation. It can use Mustang parts -- even the sheet-metal (say, look just like the Mustang concept stuff they're throwing around, even). But have it use a different name, that's all.

People will say stuff like "Look, it's just like a Mustang in the front" -- but enthusiasts will gleefully say "Yeah, but I own a real Mustang. And mean it too.

Some other parts-bin suggestions: Take the automated side-doors off of a mini-van and create a two-door Wagon that has long-ass doors that automatically open (on track-like rails) so that the front and back seats are instantly accessible. The thing will look like a Mustang-like Nomad, in other words, and use the hardware parts used to make a mini-van work. Make a 4-door version, a truck-like version and a station wagon. All of them can use similar parts, the Stang chasis and front end -- for sure the engines -- and the Ranchero brand. Yes, even the 4 door. The Ranchero is dead, but breath some life into it and see what happens.

That way someone gets the coolness of 2-doors, the utility of mini-van and the sporty-ness of a Mustang all in one shot -- but please, if you do this, Don't call it a Mustang -- you'll blow the brand and the entire idea of what the Mustang stands for, completely.

While We're On The Subject of BRAND

Listen closely Ford : Please stop tossing out brands like yesterdays trash. Why, oh why, the 500? Why not the Taurus again? What's with you people? People go back to dealerships years later to buy the same car they had last time if it worked for them. If you spent time managing a brand, all the time it takes to create one and so on, why the hell do you toss it out like this?

Honda still makes the Civic, Toyota still makes the Camry, and so on -- the people that buy these cars like to believe that they're going to be able to get another one in a couple of years.

Let's take a real-world example, very close to home. My wife loved her Ford Probe (yes, at one time, that was going to be the Mustang, so it belongs in this conversation). The Probe was a Mazda 626 re-branded. It was a damn good car for a lot of reasons -- sporty, with a hatchback, good utility, gas mileage and so on. Ford and Mazda got into some kind of stupid pissing match or whatever, and *poof* it's gone one day.

And we were looking to buy one, at just that time. Luckily for us (or possibly not) Mercury was re-branding the Ford Contour as a 2-door. It had a hatch, some other probe-like features -- it was the same formula for the car as the Probe, in other words. That car (the *new* Cougar) was really cool at the time. By the way, Ford, I distinctly remember riding on a Ferry at Put-in-Bay with my wife, the proud owner of a 1999 Cougar in the summer of 1998 (We were among the first to buy the car). Riding right next to the car was a fairly new, last generation Cougar owner and his wife. Man was he pissed about what Mercury had done to his Cougar -- but my wife fell in love with the car. Among the reasons was the color, Melina Blue -- purple, which they quickly quit making available, mostly due to the country's aversion to variety.

Anyway, the Cougar was well designed but so poorly manufactured that within 75,000 miles I was about ready to scream -- every trip to the dealer was a $500 bill. That is, if you don't count the sunroof track, which was a 1500 dollar bill, and a joke.

Why make something so good, so bad, you ask? It wasn't a truck, is only my guess. It's all academic, because when we went to replace the Cougar I decided to step in and limit my wifes' options -- we were going to look at Honda, Toyota and Acura (Honda, again). She chose an Acura RSX -- but lets suppose, Ford, you had done your job, and kept quality at Job #1? She might have been in the market for another Cougar.

Except, you decided, in your infinite brand-killing wisdom, to simply stop making them.

Now, some people might point at lack-luster sales figures and say that was justified. Maybe the sales were related to quality problems -- I'd say that would be partially true, but even more likely would be the fact that not all Probe buyers found their way to Mercury dealerships -- two wrongs, in other words, likely lead to something far worse than one.

Let's suppose instead that Ford still made a quality vehicle, called the Probe. My wife might still own one -- a new one, and not an Acura. By the way, she loves the Acura. It's very dependable, handles like a dream and it's got the exact same formula -- it's one of the few two-door hatchbacks on the market. Oh, and Honda isn't perfect -- Acura is dropping the RSX this year. Great idea Acura...

The lesson here is real-world. People are brand focused, and it's hard to focus on targets that are constantly disappearing in the night like so many blurry road-signs. Ford, please look at Mustang sales as a stunning, stark example (similar to the F150) where you are doing everything right.

So, what else, besides the brand, is right about the Mustang?

Let me count the ways:

  1. It's sporty, truly: The V8 works, the V6 is good enough for most people and there's no suppressing the "grin-factor" of opening the throttle on a Mustang.
  2. It's Fun (see the above).
  3. The Mustang has a truly usable back seat. Some people might argue with this statement. These people are forgetting that mostly kids will be riding back there. Most reasonably-sized people can fit back there, I'd argue. People that don't agree with this statement need to try and sit in the back seat of the last generation Firebird/Camaro (and, yes, I've attempted to do *exactly* that, and failed -- that is if don't count putting your feet across the seats, making it into a '3-seater'). I'd argue that this factor alone cost GM the customers that were looking at the cars in any realistic sense near the end of its last run.
  4. It's personal. There's something about the Mustang that's more than a car, in other words. Like a coat that you've fallen in love with, there's something more about the Mustang that makes you forgive it for all of its other faults. Extremely impractical tires, scary winter driving (I live in Ohio and yes, I've driven many, many miles in the Snow in my Mustang GT), piss-poor trunk space -- it's got a list of things that make it, um, have character. We're willing to forgive all this, because it's more than a car to us.
  5. It's recognizable as a Mustang. You never mistake it for something else. If it has 4 doors or looks like a wagon sometime in the future, all of this could change.
  6. It's practical, after all (just barely). You can drive it work, you can still haul a set of golf clubs in the thing. It can carry 4 people -- it's not a Corvette, in other words. It's not a Honda S2000 (Despite being a short guy, when I sit in an S2000 I feel like I'm riding in glove-box with wheels. I have no idea how tall people perceive the thing). It's still usable as a vehicle and so, arguing that it's truly impractical depends upon what you want to do with it. For a lot of people, it's a very usable car.
Are you listening Ford? Your executive summary may include stuff like the Magnum or the Challenger, but please don't go out there and start shooting holes in the Mustang brand by making variations that water the brand down to nothing-ness. People still haven't forgotten the Pinto-based Mustangs of the mid-70s (1974-78) -- some Mustang enthusiasts will even go so far as to say that those were really "Mustang IIs" -- not real Mustangs because they were so far off. I'd argue otherwise -- they were close enough to the formula.

In other words, please, please make more sporty family-friendly vehicles, but brand them with names that will make people recognize them as non-Mustangs. People aren't stupid -- if you make a Mustang-based wagon and it has Mustang parts on it, they'll still proudly point at them and feel the inclusion -- but the lack of Mustang name will make the Mustang owners have just enough exclusion so as not to be offended.

That's my suggestion. That, and stop killing off your brands. People need to come back for stuff and have that feeling that something good will be there year after year -- not necessarily unchanged, but the formula for success should be incorporated each time. That's really why the brand mention is in this article -- keep the formula the same, but change the ingredients that vary often enough to make it all fresh.

And yes, I do so love my Mustangs. Good job there.

Paul Ferris has been writing on-line for the past 8 years or so, mostly about computer software He's had several Mustangs, his first, in high-school, a 1969 coupe, his present fold includes a 2004 Mach 1 and a 2000 GT convertible.

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