Ford to Launch European-Developed C-Max Minivan in U.S.

Ford Motor Company will introduce its C-Max compact minivan to an American audience at next month’s Detroit auto show.  J.D. Power & Associates estimates minivan sales in the U.S. will increase 52 percent, to 630,857 units, by 2012. Ford hopes the C-Max’s high fuel efficiency and low sticker price (starting below $27,220) will help it capture a share of that growing market.

The U.S. is expected to add an estimated 11 million new households over the next decade, and J.D. Power & Associates’ auto analyst Jeff Schuster says the C-Max is ideally suited to meet the needs of young families on the go. Schuster said, “New households will lead to new families looking for affordable vehicles that can carry several passengers and cargo.”

Schuster also commented on Ford’s approach to marketing its compact people mover. “Traditional minivans have some image problems,” he said, “so Ford is not going to market the C-Max as a minivan.”

Ford had originally hoped to begin selling the C-Max in the U.S. next year, but Schuster said the launch date has now been delayed until 2012.

According to Autodata Corporation, the domestic minivan market peaked in 2000, with sales of 1.4 million vehicles. Industry-wide domestic minivan sales in 2009 totaled only 415,173 units.

Ford exited the minivan market in 2006. That year, the automaker sold only 46,245 Freestar and Windstar minivans, while Honda Motor Company reported sales of 177,919 Odyssey minivans and Chrysler LLC sold 211,140 Dodge Caravans.

The C-Max is based on the Ford Focus small car platform and features a sliding rear door and seating for seven adults. Ford’s head of product development Derrick Kuzak said the company plans to build a total of 10 new models based on the Focus’ mechanical platform.

In an apparent reference to Ford’s ill-fated Flex model, Kuzak said the C-Max offers the same functionality of traditional minivans “without looking like a box on wheels.”

The Flex, which was introduced in 2008, sold only 38,717 units and has drawn criticism for its boxy appearance.  “The Flex,” said Schuster, “has been polarizing because of its looks. You either love it or hate it. It’s a large, heavy vehicle that you aren’t buying for its fuel economy.”

By comparison, the C-Max offers good fuel economy and what Kuzak calls “a tidy overall footprint” that is feet shorter than either the Dodge Grand Caravan or the Honda Odyssey.

Kuzak said the C-Max’s smaller size and lower sticker price are “well-suited to the needs of young families looking for fuel- efficient alternatives.”

Schuster predicts Ford may see domestic annual sales of as many as 50,000 C-Max, which would make it the best-selling vehicle in its class. Last year the Mazda5 outsold all other compact minivans in the U.S. with sales of 18,488 units.

Ford may sell as many as 50,000 C-Max models annually in the U.S., Schuster said. That would be more than twice the sales of Mazda Motor Corp.’s Mazda5 model, which sold 18,488 last year, making it the top-selling compact minivan in the U.S.

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