Ford: Explorer, Flex & Volumes

The headline to a piece in last Friday's Detroit Free Press by Brent Snavely pretty much answers itself: “Is car-based Explorer the same rugged SUV?” The issue, of course, is the forthcoming Ford Explorer, the vehicle that really transformed the SUV marketplace in the late '90s and early '00s before falling off of a sales cliff as a result of factors including the Firestone tire problems as well as a growing consumer taste for CUVs—car-based crossover utility vehicles—and a growing indifference toward SUVs—truck-based sport utility vehicles.

The headline to a piece in last Friday's Detroit Free Press by Brent Snavely pretty much answers itself: “Is car-based Explorer the same rugged SUV?” The issue, of course, is the forthcoming Ford Explorer, the vehicle that really transformed the SUV marketplace in the late '90s and early '00s before falling off of a sales cliff as a result of factors including the Firestone tire problems as well as a growing consumer taste for CUVs—car-based crossover utility vehicles—and a growing indifference toward SUVs—truck-based sport utility vehicles.

As the 2011 Explorer will be based on a car platform—that used for the Taurus—presumably it is a CUV.

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But that's not what's most interesting about the piece. Instead, it is the observation, “But analysts say the New Explorer—which hasn't been shown publicly yet—might struggle to satisfy Ford's traditional SUV customers and could compete with Ford's existing crossovers, especially the seven-passenger Flex.” Flex, it seems, is not having the sort of appeal that might have been imagined. Snavely observes, “Through April, the current Explorer outsold the boxy, polarizing Flex 19,487 to 12,598.”

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That might seem somewhat remarkable: an aging SUV outselling a hot, comparatively fresh CUV. Does this mean the Flex is limp? Probably not. Rather, this reflects a number of factors. For example, chances are good that there has been considerably more dealing to move the Explorers than the Flex. Which means that the Flex is probably being sold for more of a “real” price.

Everyone I know who owns a Flex loves it in a way that is more characteristic of, say, original Saturn owners than run-of-the-road cars of any other brands. And realize that we're talking about a vehicle with three rows of seats that is closer in visual architecture to a school bus than a Mustang.

Perhaps the focus on sales numbers misses the real point. It comes down to what a company “makes” in a financial sense than a production unit sense that really matters. And that's what Ford seems to be doing very well.