When Ford's chief marketing executive James Farley showed media the new Ford C-MAX last year, he said all the versions of the small crossover vehicle would be hybrid and plug-in electric, with no traditional internal-combustion engine model. The strategy was clear: Take on Prius.
Farley came to Ford in 2007 after a two-decade career at Toyota, where he was a rising star. He launched the Scion brand, the Toyota Tundra pickup that was meant to take on Ford's dominance of the truck market, and he was running Lexus when Ford Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Alan Mulally recruited him.
Since then, Farley has often referred to his former employer with a combination of respect and fierce competitive disdain. How do you manage that in the same conversation? Farley can wax about all the things Toyota does right -- manufacturing efficiencies and processes -- but then he can quickly change gears and point out the company's vulnerabilities. They botched Scion, for example, Farley will say, by straying from the original plan of bringing in a steady stream of unique vehicles sold overseas that would come and go, rather than being updated product cycle after product cycle.
In taking on Prius, though, it's not easy to see the vulnerability Farley is exploiting. Prius is the clear dominator of the hybrid market. Indeed, it can be argued that the Toyota Prius is the only hybrid that has been developed and marketed properly and successfully. That one model, with its four derivatives, accounted for two-thirds of all hybrid sales in the U.S. in April. There were an astonishing 33 other hybrids sharing the other third of the market.
Prius, as a family of cars, is selling nearly 29,000 vehicles per month. For perspective, Prius is second only to Camry, the top selling car in the U.S., in the Toyota stable.
The recipe for success is not hard to identify. Ford has sold hybrid versions of its Fusion and Escape. Toyota has sold hybrid versions of its Camry, Highlander and Lexus RX. Honda had a hybrid version of its Accord. But none has come close to the Prius brand, which has become synonymous with "hybrid." Consumers have responded to a brand that stands for hybrid and nothing else, rather than hybrid versions of existing models.
By making the new C-MAX brand all hybrid and plug-in EV, Farley is copying the Prius strategy with the hope of eventually passing his old employer. And he and the Ford team realize that the Dearborn company is going to have to out-do Prius to get people to sit up and take notice.
The C-MAX Hybrid will carry a base price of $25,995, compared to $26,550 for its direct competitor, the Prius V. And the new Ford, which goes on sale this fall, will also beat the Prius V on fuel economy.
"C-MAX Hybrid offers better fuel economy, performance, technology and functionality than Prius V -- and C-MAX Hybrid customers will pay less at the dealership and at the pump," said Ken Czubay, vice president, U.S. marketing, sales and service.
C-MAX will also feature class-exclusive technologies, including Ford's new hands-free lift-gate, active park assist for easier parallel parking and improved versions of SmartGauge and EcoGuide, which help drivers increase their fuel economy. Ford also said that C-MAX will help Ford triple its electrified vehicle production capacity by 2013.
The marketing of the C-MAX hasn't been shown yet, but here's a clue: While Prius owners tend to be very devoted to their cars, detractors view the Toyota as a wimpy, under-powered car. C-MAX, which Farley feels has a name that will by its nature appeal to men more than "Prius" does, will be marketed as a "real car" that just happens to get fantastic fuel economy and represents a smart technological leap.
When Farley was at Toyota, he felt the Tundra pickup had figured out how to start beating the Ford F150 truck. That never happened. The Tundra remains a minor player in the truck market, and Farley says he saw when he came to Ford how much the Tundra team at Toyota had missed and didn't understand about "real" truck buyers. This time around, he is on the other side of the playing field, trying to take it to Toyota in the category that it dominates, just like Ford does in pickups.
Will he have more success this time?
Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.