TORONTO - The tally of vehicles bought and traded under the U.S. government's so-called Cash for Clunkers program underscores the adaptability of Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F), the only Detroit Three carmaker to survive without billions of dollars in government aid.
Two Ford vehicles - the compact Focus and the Escape SUV - made the Asian-dominated Top-10 list of vehicles purchased under the program, which until Monday offered consumers up to US$4,500 to trade in old cars for new fuel-efficient models.
Meanwhile, five Ford vehicles - the two-and four-wheel-drive version of the Explorer SUVs, the two-and four-wheel-drive versions of the F-150 pickup trucks, and the Windstar minivan - make the Top 10 list of vehicles traded in under the program.
George Pipas, U.S. sales analyst for Ford, said the latest statistics indicate that Ford vehicles accounted for more than 15 per cent of all vehicles bought under Cash for Clunkers. He estimated that Ford will have sold more than 100,000 vehicles through the program once the final numbers are tallied.
This points to a remarkable shift in Ford's product mix.
Five years ago, 70 per cent of Ford's U.S. sales volume was trucks and truck-based sport utility vehicles like the Explorer and the Expedition. Today's sales figures are almost the "mirror image" of that, Pipas said, with 64 per cent of Fords sold in the U.S. in July being cars and car-based sport utility vehicles, like the Escape.
"If the government had felt the need to run this program three or four years ago, I don't think we would have seen two vehicles in the Top 10, and I don't think our market share would have been so strong during this period for these purchases," Pipas said.
"Like investing in the stock market, you don't want to have all your eggs in one basket, and so today we're more diversified. Our portfolio is more balanced."
The improved sales trend is evident in Canada as well, where Ford has claimed top spot in market share for two months in a row. The last time the carmaker dominated Canadian sales was more than 50 years ago.
Ted Hogan, general manager of Dixie Ford in Mississauga, Ont., said his sales are "the best they've been in 10 years."
He said his dealership was down to two weeks' inventory recently - dealers prefer to have two or three months' supply on hand - due to soaring demand for everything from the F-series of pickup trucks to the Escape and the mid-sized Fusion.
"Everyone over at Ford right now is just jumping for joy and they're hoping we can continue this and I think we will," Hogan said. "It's very good product right now. I've never felt better about our product and I've been here since 1986."
Industry experts say Ford's product mix and marketing have set the company apart, but that doesn't mean the sailing will be smooth from here on in.
Ford managed to avoid the bad publicity that hounded its Detroit peers, General Motors and Chrysler, for months as they pleaded for billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts in both Canada and the U.S. and eventually filed for bankruptcy protection south of the border.
But Bill Pochiluk, president of industry adviser AutomotiveCompass, said it's too simplistic to say Ford managed to emerge from the crisis in the North American auto industry as the "good guy."
Ford had many of the same problems as GM and Chrysler, losing market share to the increasingly popular Asian carmakers in the first part of this decade, but managed to react before the global recession hit.
Current president and CEO Alan Mulally, a former Boeing executive, took the helm at Ford in 2006. Almost immediately, Mulally mortgaged Ford's assets to the hilt for more than US$20 billion, a decision that provided an important buffer against the recession.
In addition, Ford has proven itself to be extraordinarily adaptable, shifting its focus from gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs to smaller, more fuel-efficient sedans like the Focus and the Fusion, Pochiluk said.
"They positioned the right products in the right way, they've got a very positive brand right now and I would say the outlook for Ford's brands are better now than they've probably been in 15 years because of product leadership," he said.
"They don't have the stigma of bankruptcy to deal with, and they're basically saying, 'We've been here almost forever, we've got a strong product lineup, we're still financially viable,' and it's a very strong message."
Now the challenge for Ford will be coping with the huge amount of debt it accumulated when it mortgaged its assets three years ago, said David Cole, chairman of the Michigan-based Centre for Automotive Research.
"The big problem that Ford has is they will have about US$40 billion of debt, and that is the curse, whereas GM and Chrysler will have very little debt, which means they can price quite aggressively," Cole said.
"I think if companies had their druthers they'd rather be in Ford's situation, but the downside of it is that debt is just overpowering."
Earlier this month, Ford announced that it will build more of its popular Focus and Escape models and boost overall production of cars and trucks this year to help dealers restock depleted showrooms.
Ford's overall vehicle production will be two per cent higher than it expected in the third quarter, for an estimated total of 495,000 vehicles. It also plans to boost its fourth-quarter output of cars and trucks by 33 per cent from a year earlier for a total of 570,000 vehicles.
In Canada, Ford has claimed top spot in auto sales for two months in a row - a period that saw sales in most other brands tumble year over year.
Ford Canada employs about 7,000 people at two assembly plants and a parts plant in southern Ontario.