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Ford reboots in China, with deeper intel
Hans Greimel | 2019/4/23

SHANGHAI -- The face of the redesigned Ford Escape underscores a painful lesson for the American automaker: The old One Ford cookie-cutter approach didn't cut it in China.

Stung by sagging sales in the world's biggest market, Ford gave the 2020 update of the popular crossover two faces. There is one design for the U.S. and another, more opulent one for China.

The special tailoring is part of a dramatic China reboot for Ford. 

Desperate to reverse last year's 37 percent tumble in China sales, Ford is belatedly following rivals in doing things differently in China for Chinese customers. 

The Ford China 2.0 plan, unveiled ahead of last week's Shanghai auto show, goes local in a big way with newly expanded China-dedicated centers for design, engineering and advanced innovation.

"The model used to be we just brought models from Europe or North America," said Tim Slatter, Ford's executive director for product development in China. "We're not going to bring the global design to China. We're going to really think about what a China customer wants."

Ford and fellow American automaker General Motors are suddenly struggling in China as local demand sputters amid the country's slowing economy and trade tensions. 

Passenger vehicle sales retreated 4.1 percent in 2018, the first annual decline in nearly three decades. But GM's deliveries in China fell 9.9 percent to 3.64 million vehicles, while Ford's plunged 37 percent to 752,243. As both lost ground, Japanese and German rivals gained market share.

Better tailoring
Ford and GM are now trying to better tailor their Chinese operations and products to local needs. At the Shanghai show, for instance, GM resurrected the Chevrolet Trailblazer and Chevrolet Tracker nameplates for the Chinese market.

Other than their names, the crossovers appear to share little to no DNA with their predecessors sold in the U.S., which GM discontinued in the 2000s. Designed especially with China in mind, neither vehicle is expected to be exported to the U.S.

But for Ford, the urgency to localize is especially acute. 

"We have for a long time been very proud about global design, making sure there is a very recognizable design language for Ford," Slatter said. "But the reality is, times have changed."

As part of the overhaul, the carmaker plans to launch more than 30 Ford and Lincoln vehicles "tailored to Chinese consumers" in the next three years, more than 10 of which will be electrified.

"The first example of this is the Escape," Slatter said. The treatment of the front and rear fascia embodies daqi (DAH'-chee), the Chinese term for a desire for status, pomp and harmony. That means more intricate detailing in the grille and lamps as well as more shiny chrome.

Digging deeper
Ford is also catering to China's particular technology needs. It has teamed with Baidu commonly known as the Google of China to develop an in-vehicle infotainment system called Sync+ that is powered by artificial intelligence and Chinese language voice recognition.

To deliver those products, however, Ford has to establish deeper Chinese roots. 

So, Ford is establishing a China-dedicated design center this year. The company envisions it as one day having more than 100 people focused exclusively on styling cars for China.

Ford also is repurposing its Nanjing engineering center to focus more on designing vehicles for China rather than simply turning out Asian regional products.

As part of that assignment, the China team has started development of a global product for China that someday might be exported to other markets or manufactured in other countries. But the project is unique in being born and bred in China. 

Ford also looks to better leverage product development with its local joint venture partners. Ford and Jiangling Motors Corp., for example, teamed to create the Territory crossover for China.

"We are underindexed on that, compared with other manufacturers," Slatter said. 

Ford will establish in China what it calls an Innovation Center as a kind of advanced research outpost to capture the latest local trends, and it will team with local tech providers. China leads the world in some emerging automotive technologies, especially infotainment connectivity systems.

"The idea is to look into the future and pull some of those things forward," Slatter said. 

To be sure, rivals such as Volkswagen, Honda and even GM have long been laying deep local roots like the ones Ford outlines in its 2.0 plan. 

"There are no reasons why our business should not regain momentum and be really successful again here in China," Slatter said. "This is just the beginning of what will be a very strong pipeline of technology and product."

Michael Wayland contributed to this report.

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