Ford lost the mid-size game over twenty years ago. No matter how good looking, fuel efficient, reliable, or trend setting the current Fusion was over the last several years, the relentlessness of the Japanese automakers ensured that when the market shifted away from sedans, their products would be the ones left standing. Things may have turned out differently if gas prices remained high, but the bottom line is that in hyper competitive segments there is absolutely no room for error. And Ford messed up big time.
Is there more to it than that? Sure. A shrinking market can only sustain so many vehicles, and there are way too many mid-size sedans currently competing in the American market. Automakers like Nissan deliberately went downmarket in order to undercut the big players, while stalwarts like the Accord were able to maintain their relatively high transaction prices, although that is getting harder to do with each passing day.
A flashy, sophisticated, technologically advanced, and boundary pushing car could only do so much. Does it go upmarket and play the premium game in an effort to attract a different demographic in a segment often dominated by value-focused customers just looking for a reliable commuter vehicle? Or do you develop a basic, no-frills appliance that commands a lower price but offers a more simplistic driving experience?
The Taurus represented all those things at various points throughout its history. Originally praised for its Euro-centric characteristics, Ford’s mid-size eventually became the car for middle America. So did the Accord and Camry, but Ford didn’t realize that, and the end result was the 1996 Taurus. The stylish, flashy, dynamic car that Ford thought would appeal to very successful white collar customers flopped in spectacular fashion. And that wasn’t necessarily the fault of the car itself. But the market responds to very specific things, and that wasn’t it.
Where the Fusion fit in regards to the contemporary mid-size sedan market is the question Ford has been asking as they watched its sales decline. Their conclusion is that there isn’t a point in staying in a segment that failed to accept their product. Per Automotive News:
U.S. Fusion sales topped 300,000 in both 2014 and 2015, territory that domestic cars hadn’t touched for many years. But it never managed to loosen the iron grip Toyota, Honda and Nissan had atop the segment. Coupled with the buyers’ shift to crossovers and SUVs, Ford decided the Fusion wasn’t worth saving, despite the brand equity it had built up over more than a decade.
Looking back at the history of the Accord, Camry, and Altima demonstrates why Ford chose to divert its resources away from developing sedans. None of the Japanese mid-size cars experienced any sort of roadblock to their success; all three of them built upon their predecessors and engaged in steady improvement while not making any potentially catastrophic errors. That decades long buildup mattered when the segment began its rapid contraction several years ago, which is why they’re going to be sticking around for years to come.
Ford adheres to a similar philosophy, just not when it comes to cars. Whether its the F-150 or another core product like the Transit vans or the Super Duty lineup, Ford has maintained its competitiveness by producing vehicles customers actually want and building upon that with each subsequent generation. And also by simply not screwing up. Ford is going nearly all in on crossovers, utilities, and trucks because they’ve generally gotten them right.
In a market that still needed sedans, the Fusion would have thrived like it used to. But changing tides ensured the past was going to come back to haunt Ford. And by getting the 1996 Taurus redesign wrong the company sealed the fate of the Fusion as well.
If dealers’ wishes come true and the nameplate sticks around in some fashion, Sullivan suggested it could likely be similar to a Buick Regal TourX wagon.
“That’s your new family sedan,” Sullivan said. “It’s just not what we’ve traditionally known.”
What Ford has traditionally known when it comes to the mid-size segment is that it believed in more than just a car. It believed in an idea. The American sedan with European sensibilities that could appeal to everyone. But it could never do that in perpetuity, which Dearborn really didn’t understand when they developed the oval Taurus.
Like Jay Gatsby’s brief reunion with Daisy Buchanan, the Fusion was exactly what Ford wanted and needed, but decisions made in the past ensured that the ephemeral achievement of their goals was never going to last.