DEARBORN - There is a saying, “As California goes, so goes the nation.”
And as automotive industry insiders know, that sentiment is particularly true when it comes to vehicle sales.
“California is a barometer for the rest of the country with new products because it is a trendsetting state,” said Mark Wexler, San Francisco regional manager, Ford Lincoln Sales, Parts & Service. “It is also the largest car market in the U.S., accounting for roughly 10 percent of all vehicle sales.”
According to Ford U.S. Sales Analyst Erich Merkle, the company’s success on the West Coast is crucial, especially with regard to vehicle sales in the all-important “super segment,” which includes subcompact, compact cars, small utility vehicles and midsize sedans.
“Those four key segments taken as a whole represent just over 50 percent of total new vehicle sales in the U.S.,” he said. “And if you’re going to have success in the super segment, you have to go through California to get there.”
Merkle says Ford has been making significant strides in the Golden State since the introduction of the Ford Fiesta in 2010.
“The Fiesta was a real game-changer for Ford,” he said. “After its launch, Los Angeles quickly became the No.1-selling region for a Ford product. That’s something we hadn’t seen in a very long time.”
And Ford has maintained the momentum with more new products like the Focus, C-MAX, Escape and Fusion.
“We had never been relevant in the super segment and all of a sudden we had these phenomenal products in design, quality and technology,” said Wexler. “Customers in California were and are very responsive.”
Year-to-date retail sales of super segment vehicles Fiesta, Focus, C-MAX, and Fusion are up 54 percent through March of this year in California. The super segment is being driven by Ford’s newest entry, the all-new Fusion. Fusion retail sales in the first quarter of this year were up 112 percent in Los Angeles and 102 percent in San Francisco.
In addition, 22 percent of the nation’s C-MAX sales year-to-date have been from the state of California.
“It has been so extraordinary to see a product that is all-new to the marketplace receive such a great reception,” said Wexler. “The C-MAX Hybrid is a direct competitor with the Toyota Prius, and we’re gaining market share with it. It’s very significant.”
That’s music to the ears of California Ford dealers like Tim Paulus, who owns The Ford Store Morgan Hill near San Jose.
“It’s a very exciting time,” he said. “My particular dealership has been growing at a clip of 35 or 40 percent per year and there is not a product line that we have that is not increasing.”
Paulus says he’s seeing a pronounced shift in consumer sentiment for Ford vehicles in an area of the U.S. that has traditionally been “import country.”
“Three or four years ago if you were at my dealership on the weekend you’d walk around the outside of the store and you would see largely a lot of domestic trades waiting to be appraised,” he explained. “Now it’s amazing how many Toyotas and Hondas you see. It’s just the greatest position that we could possibly be in.”
Paulus says he believes the change is due to the great products Ford has introduced in recent years.
“Our full lineup is fresh and extremely competitive,” he said. “Ford is building products with good fuel economy and great quality. And nobody has anything that looks as good.”
“The cars look sexy so the design gets their attention, and the technology with SYNC and MyFord Touch has been very well received,” he said.
Wexler says consumers are also still influenced by Ford’s decision four years ago not to accept government funding.
“We are still hearing that loud and clear – thank you for not taking the money,” he said. “So we’re getting some consideration through that action and then when they come to the dealership and consider a Ford, they are impressed with the incredible products.”
Wexler says Ford has been working long and hard to earn consumer acceptance in the West.
“We’ve been working on that for such a long time,” he said. “People may have bought a Focus several years go because it was inexpensive and had good fuel economy, but they didn’t love the car. Now they really love our new products.”
California also sets pace for electrified vehicles
California is also a trendsetter for electrified vehicles.
According to Edmunds.com, the Golden State accounts for a third of all electric vehicles and a quarter of all hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S.
“This is where primary demand is,” said Wexler. “And the California Area Resources Board (CARB) leads 13 states in green initiative legislation regarding fuel economy standards. So it’s really important to be successful here.”
Currently, one in four Ford hybrid vehicles and half of all Fusion and C-MAX Energi products are sold in the state of California.
Paulus says he’s personally seen a great deal of interest in the Fusion Hybrid. The problem is that there are not enough vehicles in stock to satisfy consumer demand.
“Fusion Hybrids sell fast and all of the ones that I’ve had have been pre-sold,” he said. “I’ve had multiple customers who came in wanting to road test the car, but I did not have a car to show them.”
Keeping up with demand is an issue, but Merkle says Ford is doing everything possible to ameliorate the situation.
“It’s definitely going to be tight as we try to get through the spring months,” he said. “In order to help accommodate the growing demand for Fusion we’ve got another production line coming on in the fall of this year at our plant in Flat Rock, Mich.”