Ford is having a real crack with the new Focus, chasing a new type of customer in the process.
Ford Australia is expanding the Focus range with new variants and rethinking its marketing strategy, as it plots a sales revival for its small car.
Focus sales have plummeted in recent years, with the model set to record its lowest annual figure since the model replaced the Laser late in 2002.
Traditional rivals like the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Holden Astra, Volkswagen Golf and Hyundai i30 continue to flourish in the market, but the Focus has recorded only 3783 sales to the end of November 2018.
That compares with the model's strongest performance in 2013, when 19,180 units were shifted.
The Focus has previously been offered in hatch and sedan forms, but a wagon joins the range for the first time locally with the fourth- generation model while the sedan has been dropped. A high-riding Active model then joins the line-up in early 2019.
Wagons of any size aren’t big sellers in Australia, but Ford Australia believes there's an opportunity with the specific variant it has chosen for the local market.
“The [Focus] wagon has been something we've been evaluating for some time,” says Ford Australia’s marketing director, Daniella Winter.
“It's a small part of the small car segment, and it's not growing, but we felt the product portfolio available globally represented a good opportunity here in Australia, particularly the derivative that we've brought in, which is the ST-Line.
“I think it will stand out for us in terms of its appearance in the flesh, and the [sporty] driving experience associated with that.”
The Focus ST-Line models feature a sports body kit for a more aggressive appearance, and the suspension has been lowered and tuned for a sportier drive. Interestingly, the ST-Line wagon (priced from $30,990) is the only Focus variant currently to sit on a fully-independent rear suspension. Hatches employ a new torsion beam set-up.
Mazda’s next-generation 3 will also use this form of rear suspension, that's typically not as sophisticated as a multi-link arrangement, though Volkswagen Australia made a strategic decision to ignore torsion-beam versions of the Golf for this market.
Volkswagen is one of the few manufacturers to offer a small wagon (Golf). Other rivals for the Focus include wagon variants of the Renault Megane, Holden Astra and Skoda Octavia.
Winter says the Focus wagon range may be extended depending on customer reaction to the ST-Line. She admits the wagon still won't account for a significant portion of Focus sales, but says the company wouldn’t have decided to import the variant if it didn’t have some volume benefit.
“You always want your [model] derivatives to do a good share of the [sales] volume,” she says. “If there's 100 per cent of the pie, you don't want to have models doing two per cent. That's very difficult to stock and sell for the network and our partners within that.
"So, we expect it to be a reasonable part of our mix, but our early customers are going to tell.”
Ford Australia believes the forthcoming Active will be a stronger sales bet with its SUV-inspired body cladding and increased ride height. It's front-wheel drive only, but the company believes it can steal some small-SUV buyers.
“Yes, we think [it] will be significant part of our range,” says Winter. “From a campaign perspective, we'll be very specifically targeting Active to a different type of customer from the general Focus customer.
“We think there is an opportunity [with Active] to talk to a wider audience that's active and looking for a different exterior proposition for their vehicle, if not necessarily for going off-road.”
Ford Australia has been criticised frequently for its struggles with marketing around models that either aren’t the Falcon (historically) or the Ranger ute.
Winter says the company is planning a new type of marketing approach for the latest Focus.
“Our [Focus] campaign is quite different that we're going to launch to market – different from its predecessors, and certainly will be focused from a communication stand point on the ST-Line, as a series and as a range.
“It’s very much centred around the product attributes and what the product brings to the market for our customers. [Customers are] going to judge whether or not they like the way we bring [the Focus] to market, but it will be fresh, it will be new… We go to shoot in two weeks, so it is exciting.
“Separately, we'll have a separate communication plan associated with the Active.”
The 2019 Ford Focus range is priced from $25,990. The company has yet to confirm a cheaper ‘price leader’ variant that is traditional in the segment, though admits such a model has been homologated for the market.