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Avoiding the Holden Commodore trap! Ford must kick its Ranger and Everest over-reliance with coming crossovers, SUVs, 4x4s, trucks and electric cars | Opinion

After half a decade or so of intense research and development, Ford’s new Ranger is out of its creators’ hands and in the public domain.

Reviews are glowing, demand is strong and supply is scarce (like most everything else nowadays). All Ford needs to do now is sit back and watch the orders – and profits – pour in.

Job done. Congratulations all round.

Of course, that’s a gross oversimplification of a process that is never over, in an ever-changing environment where you could be on top of the world one day and struggling to keep your head above water the next.

For Ford Australia, staying afloat means ensuring the Ranger’s status as one of this country’s favourite vehicles. After all, in 2021 it was our second-best seller, just behind its closest rival, the Toyota HiLux, at 50,279 versus 52,801 units respectively.

A great result for sure, but while the Ranger accounted for two-thirds of all Ford’s local sales, the HiLux makes up for less than one-quarter of Toyota's. Combined with the related Everest SUV, Ford’s figure jumps from 66 to 82 per cent, or 58,600 out of nearly 71,400 sales. Adding the Fortuner SUV to HiLux, on the other hand, only ups Toyota's tally from 23.6 to just 25.3 per cent.

Four out of five Ford sales being either Ranger or Everest is fraught with danger for the Blue Oval. Even when Ford was market leader in the 1980s with the Falcon at number one, its Laser small car was also in the top-five while the mid-sized Telstar was a top-10 fixture, resulting in a mix more akin to Toyota's today.

Now, in the wake of the company’s shocking deletion of both the Fiesta ST and Focus ST, it will rely even more on its trucks, SUVs and commercial vehicles like Transit, especially as walking away from hot hatches is an end of an era for Ford and a boost for esteemed rival alternatives like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Hyundai i30 N

Ford must learn from Holden’s myopic reliance on the Commodore.

Holden gambled everything in 2001 developing the VE Commodore to replace the best-selling VT-based models in 2006, but by then SUVs were crushing sedan sales while the looming Global Financial Crisis decimated the export markets essential for sustainability. 

Yet, despite such setbacks, the Commodore dice was rolled again, for 2013’s VF and 2018’s ZB, but the latter sold so poorly that General Motors ended Holden by 2020, after 71 years as Australia's Own carmaker. 

Which is why Ford should stop also being over-reliant on Ranger.

President and CEO, Andrew Birkic responded to this line of questioning at the Ranger's recent Australian launch by reiterating his faith in consumers recognising a world-class product – which undoubtedly the latest Ranger is – and acting accordingly. 

Plus, pick-up sales are growing, not contracting. That’s a key difference compared to what Holden faced with Commodore in its declining years. The large-car party was over even before VE was released.

That’s fine for now, particularly as part of Ranger’s critical acclaim is by default, since no other pick-up maker seems to bother about pushing boundaries out like Ford has. Yes, the Isuzu D-Max/Mazda BT-50 twins did so for safety in 2020, but they trail Ranger in vehicle dynamics, refinement, comfort, packaging and functionality.

But, how long will this bubble last for Ford? What if the next-gen HiLux, Nissan Navara or Mitsubishi Triton finally bring their A-game when their successors surface in about 2024? The same applies to the rumoured Kia and Hyundai pick-ups, too.

At least Ford has confirmed that the latest Ranger will adopt electrification in some form during its lifespan, and that should keep it relevant in time against newer rivals. But that’s just shifting deckchairs on the Titanic, should Ranger sales overall start tanking due to age or competition in the coming years.

Which is why diversification is key.

Again, if Holden’s Commodore lesson teaches us anything, reinforcements for Ranger probably shouldn’t be low-riding sedan or hatchback shaped.

Ford’s future passenger-car line-up is looking worryingly opaque right now anyway, with the traditional Fiesta supermini and Focus small car likely nearing their end soon while, like Falcon, the Mondeo is history. 

With the seventh-generation redesign debuting in September ahead of a 2024 model-year launch, only the Mustang muscle car seems assured of a future here as far as established Ford nameplates amongst passenger cars are concerned.

What comes of Ford’s Northern Hemisphere-centric agreement with Volkswagen to use the latter’s MEB electrical architecture for a future small cars and medium SUVs is as yet unknown. But as intriguing and progressive as these are, we can’t as-yet imagine them becoming the sales pillars to help support the Ranger in Australia.

There’s more promise in the increasingly popular Transit van also out of Europe, but that’s still small fry sales-wise, at under four per cent of Ford’s total local volume last year. 

The answer to alleviating Ford's over-dependence on Ranger, inevitably, seems to lie in other utes and SUVs, and increasingly electrified ones at that.

We’re expecting an Australian announcement on the Mustang Mach-E before the end of this year, around the same time as the big E-Transit van finally lands, and ahead of the launch of the smaller, next-gen E-Transit Cargo in 2024.

But, again, these are bit players for now, supporting an array of potential mainstream superstars either already available or in the pipeline for the world stage.

Let’s start with the long-awaited medium-sized crossover wagon rumoured to be the North American Fusion Active. Similar conceptually to Subaru's enduringly popular Outback, it would seem like a no-brainer to slot beneath Everest and above the brilliant Puma and mid-sized Escape SUVs out of Europe. Watch for a global announcement on that soon.

Still in the Americas, Ford is obviously testing the waters with the right-hand-drive (RHD) conversions of F-150 trucks from next year, to see whether the 2027/8 replacement should be factory-RHD – a distinct chance, given the company’s statement in 2019 that all future truck platforms including Ranger will merge into one flexible and electrification-ready architecture developed in Detroit and out by the end of this decade. 

Yep, that's how we know the T6.2 is Australia's last-ever mainstream vehicle.

So, a $100,000 behemoth might work here as a niche money-spinner against the RAM and GM Silverados. However, Ford could show real leadership by investing in the car-based, monocoque-bodied Maverick ute for Australia. 

Based on the Escape’s architecture, it essentially replaces the Focus hatch as the brand’s entry-level model in North America. A huge sales reception there proves that thinking outside of the box works. And everybody loved the thematically-identical Subaru Brumby, especially in Australia...

Should Ford follow Toyota’s lead with the top-selling Kluger by also importing its alternative, the Explorer, from North America? Year to date, the supply-constrained Kluger is still up 140 per cent and the second bestselling large SUV in Australia after the brand’s evergreen Prado, so why not? Buyers are obviously plentiful and ready to spend big bucks on hybrid versions, which the US Ford accommodates.  

Finally, of course, there’s Bronco. Whether we’re talking about the (again Escape-derived) off-road focused Bronco Sport to give Ford Australia real cut-through against the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester and Mazda CX-5, or the (ironically) T6.2 Ranger-based Bronco 4x4 proper that evokes the likes of the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Jeep Wrangler, they would find a ready market and be a fine fit locally.

We’re giving Ford’s Australian boss the last word on these complex matters for now.

“There are many issues,” Mr Birkic revealed to CarsGuide.

“Is it right-hand-drive? Do the customers want it? And can you get it at a quantity (to justify) the volume (given the Australian-specific engineering and homologation all models need to undergo)?

“Right now, we’ve done a really good job and presenting a bandwidth of vehicles to our customers and I think we are OK.

“What you have to do is work out where you’re going to play. That’s what we’ve done with Ranger, and Ranger has evolved since we launched it in 2011. We continue to learn and we know where we do well and we certainly like to play to our strengths, and that’s what we’ve done.

“I’m pretty comfortable with Ranger. That’s the right vehicle for the Australian market, and given our pre-orders, we are in a good place to capitalise on that going forward.”

So does that exclude every one of the models mentioned above? The answer is ambiguous.

“We will always look at what Ford offers down the road, and we do, but at this stage we have no plans,” Mr Birkic said.

Do you agree that Ford cannot rely solely on Ranger to secure its long-term survival in Australia? Let us know.