What Ford Has Riding On These Four Wheels

The hot '97 F-150 might provide the oomph the new Taurus hasn't

Frank Oberle likes the look and feel of a new pickup truck. That's why he has purchased four Dodge Rams since 1993. But as soon as the curvy new Ford F-150 hit town, Oberle traded in his trendy red 1996 Ram for a $28,000 burgundy F-150. "It's not as aggressive-looking as the Ram, but I'm getting a lot more comments on the Ford," says the 36-year-old food-factory machinist in Utica, N.Y. "It's the new thing."

Ford is counting on the reworked F-150 to haul in trend-followers such as Oberle as well as the usual hard hats and farmers. To do that--and break its string of sluggish new-model launches--Ford must also persuade traditional F-150 owners to accept the swoopy new styling and stiffer sticker price. So far, so good: Dealers have deluged Ford with 140,000 orders for the new model, which was only introduced on Jan. 25.

CASH COW. Success is critical to Ford. The F-series pickup cost $4 billion to redesign, churns out about $3,500 in gross profits per unit, and keeps six factories humming. And Ford badly wants the F-series to remain America's top-selling vehicle, racking up nearly 700,000 sales annually. "This truck is the single most important product for Ford in North America," says Schroder Wertheim & Co. analyst John Casesa. "The whole company is running on profits from the F-series and the Explorer."

To gain new converts, Ford is gunning for younger, more affluent buyers (table). That audience largely spurned the brickish old F-150 in favor of the 18-wheeler styling of the Dodge Ram or the smooth look of the Chevrolet C/K. Now, the aerodynamic new F-150 seems modern and is packed with car-style features such as an overhead-cam engine and a cushy suspension that rides like a sedan. Its new engine even runs 100,000 miles before its first tune-up, a feature usually found only on luxury cars. One good sign: The once utilitarian beast of burden is gaining a following in California's trendier areas. "People are buying this truck for the image--it's an extension of their personal wardrobe," says analyst Christopher W. Cedergren of AutoPacific Group Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif.

The F-150 is no bargain. Prices begin at $15,660--about $1,000 more than the Chevy and $1,300 more than the Dodge --and rise to more than $30,000. Ford expects its most popular model to be the F-150 XLT with an extended cab and automatic transmission. It starts at $22,581. But Ford contends the higher prices are offset by extra features such as dual air bags and a standard third door that opens to the rear seat on the extended-cab version. Chevy charges $425 for its third door, and Dodge doesn't have one. "I don't mean to be arrogant," says Bobbie Gaunt, Ford's general marketing manager, "but I can't imagine what could go wrong with this truck."

Fred Ostrick can. The retired New York fireman and truck traditionalist recently test-drove the new F-150 and was turned off by its "bulbous" styling and carlike ride. "If I wanted a sedan, I would go out and buy a sedan," says Ostrick, 60.

MELDED DESIGNS. But Ford is trying hard not to offend too many such traditionalists. It gave a not-too-radical look to the new F-150 by melding a futuristic design concept from its California studio with a more conservative one out of its Detroit studio. It will hedge its bets further when it introduces updates of the heavier-duty F-250 and F-350 later this year. Those work models will have a more boxy look and rugged ride than the sculpted F-150.

Ford also took no chances with its $60 million ad campaign for the F-150, which debuted during January's Super Bowl broadcast. The campaign, Ford's largest ever for a truck, resurrected the "Built Ford tough" slogan and features leathery--and camp--Hollywood cowboy Jack Palance riding herd in an F-150. The company says the next wave of commercials, coming this spring, will have a softer theme, stressing features such as cup holders and air bags.

Ford is trying to strike a delicate balance with the F-150 launch because it is desperate for a hit. Both its Contour sedan and Windstar minivan had slow starts. Its new Taurus, which came out last fall, has been faltering, too. Ford had to slap $600 rebates on all three models to spur sales. "A lot of people felt the new Taurus was overpriced," says Robert C. Failing, a Ford dealer in St. Johnsville, N.Y. "But people aren't fighting the price of the F-series truck." If that enthusiasm holds, this is one Ford product launch that won't sputter at the starting line.

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