Ford exec chats up FFA conventioneers

While presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama was campaigning for “change” eight blocks away at the American Legion Mall today, Ford Motor Co.’s VP of sales and marketing was in Indianapolis in a campaign of sorts at the National FFA Organization convention.

Kenneth Czubay arrived downtown to accept an award from the Indianapolis-based organization on behalf of Ford’s long-term involvement with the group and to promote the 60th anniversary of the Ford F-Series pickup, long a staple of rural farm America.

Ford is trying to protect its bread-and-butter product, which has been battered this year by high-fuel prices and an economic slowdown that could hurt sales among core commercial buyers.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker has begun shipping to dealers a redesigned, more fuel-efficient model even as it scrambles to bring to the U.S. as many as to six fuel-efficient European models starting in 2010.

“We’ve made a commitment going forward that we’re going to reconfigure our product mix,” Czubay said in an interview with IBJ.

Ford recently launched the seven-passenger crossover Ford Flex, which is rated at 24 miles per gallon. But the vehicle resembling a Mini Cooper wagon on steroids is not a dramatic improvement in mileage over Taurus X wagon.

The first version of a fuel-efficient European Ford car to be sold in the United States will be the Ford Fiesta, which will be assembled at a Ford plant in Mexico and sold here in 2010.

Ford plans to build several other European models at its U.S. plants, possibly including its Kuga crossover vehicle that’s popular in Europe.

Though Ford and other automakers are hurrying to bring more desirable fuel efficient cars to the U.S., importing them would be difficult due to differing safety and insurance standards. Shipping the vehicles here also would hurt Ford’s ability to fulfill demand in Europe, Czubay said.

Some industry sources pegged the plan by Ford CEO Alan Mulally to retool U.S. plants to make European variants at $3 billion. Ford is trying to hang in under financial strain capped by a second-quarter loss of $8.7 billion. General Motors and Chrysler are also being hit especially hard as they wage war against foreign automakers that have long specialized in more fuel-efficient cars.

Ford’s best-selling F-150 gains slightly better fuel economy through its redesign, to 21 mpg highway on its 5.4 liter V-8 model. The improvement came mainly by changes to axle ratios and valve timing, said Doug Scott, group product and marketing manager for pick-ups and SUVs.

While many commuters have dumped pickup trucks, Ford is trying to solidify its core truck buyer – contractors and other commercial users who cannot make due without a truck regardless of fuel prices.

But Ford also plans to introduce to the U.S. market – probably next April or May – a more efficient commercial vehicle, a small, van-like model known as the Transit, which is built in Turkey. It will be aimed at small-business owners who need utility and fuel savings and will include a high-roofline with ample room for racks and bins.

Ford is FFA’s largest corporate sponsor, providing more than 5,000 scholarships since 1998.

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