Will Chinese Drivers Pay Luxury Prices for the Humble Ford Taurus?

The timing isn’t the best for a top-end sedan.

The new Taurus for China costs as much as $54,500.

The new Taurus for China costs as much as $54,500.

Courtesy: Ford Motor Company

The Taurus was once America’s favorite family car, the top-selling model of the 1990s that popularized the aerodynamic look. Then a radical redesign failed to catch on, consigning it to an ignominious dotage as a rental car fleet mainstay. Now, Ford Motor is betting that this faded star can make a comeback, this time in China as a top-of-the-line sedan aimed at businessmen with a weakness for legroom and power-reclining massage seats.

That won’t be easy. With a starting price of 248,800 yuan ($39,000) that tops out at 348,800 yuan for the most expensive trim line, the Taurus is crossing into luxury sedan territory dominated by BMW’s 3 Series, Audi’s A4L, and Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class. It’s also almost double the price of Great Wall Motor’s H6, the best-selling SUV in China. The country’s buyers have been ditching traditional sedans for roomier utility vehicles and minivans, sometimes called MPVs (for multipurpose vehicles).

The Chinese market has slowed sharply since April, when Ford introduced the car there. Since then, a stock market rout and a weakening economy have sapped car demand, which was also hit by stricter vehicle registration curbs imposed by cities trying to stem worsening traffic and air pollution.

Things got so bad that the government in October cut a 10 percent vehicle purchase tax by half to encourage sales—but the incentive won’t apply to the Taurus because its 2.7-liter engine is too large to qualify. “The segment where it will play doesn’t grow anymore,” says Jochen Siebert, Shanghai-based managing director at JSC Automotive Consulting. “But Ford should be able to win some market share, provided they get the price right.”

To help position the Taurus as a high-end business sedan worthy of its luxury-level sticker price, Ford has signed up actor Chen Daoming to endorse the model. He’s well-known for playing emperors in Chinese period dramas, including a popular 2001 epic on the reign of the 17th century Qing dynasty monarch Kangxi.

Whether that will help lend the Taurus an imperial touch remains to be seen. Yang Song, a sales executive who owns a Jaguar XJ sedan and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, says he may consider buying a Taurus because it’s “good value for money,” though he thinks it lacks aspects found in BMWs, which he says have “firmer doors.” (Local drivers like a satisfying thud.) “It looks good for people using it in business,” says Yang, 50, while checking out the Taurus at the Guangzhou auto show in November. “I like that it’s spacious and exudes gravitas.”

The original 1986 Taurus was a hit with American buyers, its design standing out from the boxy shapes that were standard for family cars. By 1992 it had displaced Honda Motor’s Accord as the top-selling car in the U.S., reaching a sales peak of 409,751 vehicles that year. A radical restyling in 1995 and a price increase caused sales to slump, and Taurus ceded the No. 1 title in 1997. Its fading consumer appeal left it relegated to purchases by rental companies before being shelved in 2006. Although it was resurrected in the U.S. in 2009, the model has never again approached the popularity of its ’90s heyday.

Besides being on the wrong side of China’s SUV mania, analysts say, the Taurus is unlikely to become one of the mainland’s biggest models because of its price. Ford’s car costs more than twice the average sticker price for the 10 top-selling cars in the country, about 100,000 yuan, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The best-selling model, Volkswagen’s Lavida, starts at 109,900 yuan. Ford’s Focus compact, starting at 99,800 yuan, was seventh in sedan sales in China in the first 10 months of the year, with 207,200 units, down 37 percent from a year earlier.

While Ford’s SUV models are doing well in China, the sedan sales slump there has dragged down Ford’s retail deliveries by 0.4 percent this year through October, after expanding 19 percent for all of last year. The automaker recorded four consecutive monthly declines from June to September before snapping the streak in October after the government halved the 10 percent purchase levy. Still, Ford is betting that the car, made by its joint venture with Chongqing Changan Automobile, can draw buyers, in part because of creature comforts such as more legroom and an electric massage function for back seats—where affluent, chauffeur-driven Chinese typically ride. “The Ford Taurus will give the business elite a prestigious user experience,” Chen Xu, deputy general manager of Changan Ford Sales, said in a release marking the start of the model’s sales in November. “We believe the Ford Taurus will have an extremely good market performance.”

Even if the timing isn’t the best to launch a top-end sedan, Ford needs to offer a vehicle like the Taurus if it wants to be a serious competitor in China, says Yale Zhang, a managing director at researcher Autoforesight Shanghai. “Ford needs to fill in every segment to compete in,” he says. “They didn’t have something in the big sedan segment until this.”

The bottom line: Ford is introducing the Taurus in China at a sticker price as high as $54,500, just as buyers are eschewing sedans in favor of SUVs.

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