The Euros are coming, the Euros are coming.

No, we’re not talking about the rather bland-looking European currency that, in recent years, has replaced the French franc, the Italian lira and the German mark, etc. -- which many longtime European travelers will tell you were a lot more interesting and distinctive than the homogenous Euro. But that’s another conversation.

No, we’re talking about the European car models that Ford has been touting for the last couple of years – the smaller, more fuel-efficient models that companies have been selling in Europe for the last several years -- that are being “transported” to the U.S. market.
  • Image Credit: Ford

Ford Is Coming Strong

Ford's European nameplates have actually already started arriving in America – and will continue to hit these shores over the next couple of years. But they aren’t exactly the same vehicles that have been motoring along roads in London, Paris, Berlin, Florence and Amsterdam.

Instead, they’re been re-designed, with input from both U.S. and European engineers, so that the re-designed versions that are hitting the U.S. market will be the same ones that will go on sale in Europe. The “European invasion” actually began late in 2009, when the Ford Transit Connect van debuted – and promptly was named the North American Truck of the Year at the Detroit auto show in January.

Ford Going Small

Following the Connect will be the Ford Fiesta, which is slated for a summer launch. Then will come the next generation of the Focus, slated for an early-2011 rollout, and which will be a re-design of the European-version of the Focus that has become a popular choice across the pond.

Ford's European People Hauler

Further down the line, in late 2011, will be the new C-Max, -- the production model of which was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in early March -- and will be built on the same platform as the redesigned Focus. The current European version of the C-Max goes on sale this summer in Europe, where it will be available in two incarnations -- one with two rows and one with three rows. It’s the three-row version that’s hitting the U.S., and it’s categorized as a “multi-activity” vehicle that’s something of a hybrid between a small SUV and a small minivan, although the shape is closer to that of a mini. The common denominator of these vehicles is their smaller stature and higher mileage.

Ford's Focus Will Be All-New, Too

“We strongly believe, and our research bears this out, that the compacts and sub-compacts are the segments that will continue to show the most growth, and will become more and more popular among buyers,” says Mark Schirmer, Ford’s global product communications manager.

“In 2004, these segments represented just 14 percent of the market, but by 2009, they accounted for 22 percent of vehicles sold,” says Schirmer. “And that increase wasn’t just driven by high gas prices in ’07 and ’08 -- because prices dropped in November of ’08. Presently, half of the cars sold around the world are compacts or sub-compacts.”

Chrysler Bringing Fiat 500 To Our Shores

Clearly, Ford is not the only American carmaker to see this trend. A big selling point of the Chrysler-Fiat alliance was the promise it would be bringing small, fuel-sipping Euro-style models to the U.S. market. The first of those will be the 2011 Fiat 500, slated to arrive in the U.S. in late ’10, says Chrysler. It will likely come in four variations: the standard three-door hatch, the 500C cabriolet, a "Giardinetta" wagon, and the 500 Abarth. More will follow, promises Chrysler

GM's Euro Strategy Is Engineering Focused

General Motors also has plenty of smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles either on the road now or coming down the pipeline, including the Chevy Cruze, the Chevy Cobalt, the Chevy Malibu and the Chevy Volt plug-in vehicle (many of which employ engineering from GM-owned Opel, which specializes in compact cars and fuel-efficient engines). And even though GM has shed the Saturn and Pontiac nameplates, both of those brands introduced several smaller, fuel-sipping cars in the last couple of years that are still on the road -- and still going strong.

But historically, GM has employed a slightly different philosophy and structure than Ford’s when it came to designing and selling vehicles in different parts of the world. “GM operates under a global engineering and manufacturing structure, so there are a few GM vehicles that we sell in the U.S that are very similar to vehicles we sell overseas,” says GM spokesman Randal Fox -- except they have different names.

For example, in the past, GM sold the (now-discontinued) Saturn VUE in the US, but the same vehicle was sold as the Opel Antara in Europe.

The New Buick Regal Is An Opel

And the Opel Insignia sold in Europe is sold as the Buick Regal in China, points out Fox. "And the new Buick Regal that will go on sale in North America in May will be produced at the same plant as the Opel Insignia in Russelsheim, Germany.”

Ford Leading The Way

So, that leaves Ford as the American carmaker that is “importing” the most Euro-centric styles and philosophies in the most immediate, short-term fashion. . “In the past, Ford was less of a global company -- the various divisions tended to operate more regionally, partly due to labor agreements, and the fact that demand for different vehicles fluctuated from continent to continent,” says Schirmer. “Like, there was never much demand for huge SUVs in Europe, for example. “Certainly, after that big gas-price spike in ’08 and ‘09, there was some uncertainty about the future of fuel prices, and that still remains -- no one knows when and if they will spike again, or how high. And that uncertainty does play a role in people wanting smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, to hedge their bets.”

Fuel Issues Created Need

Indeed, many economists have predicted that, once the economy recovers -- whenever that might be -- fuel prices will spike again.

But the move to smaller vehicles is also because of a general change in buying patterns as the baby boomer generation has aged, said Schirmer. Back in the ‘90s, the boom in SUV sales was driven by boomers who had young children or teens and needed more roomy vehicles. But lately, those boomers have seen their kids grow up, leave the nest and move out, so they’re downsizing as they get older.

Part of the downsizing is also due to the Wall Street meltdown that has decimated pensions and 401K plans and pensions -- so, a lot of boomers don’t have as much money now as they thought they were going to have. As a result, fuel-efficiency is more appealing to them.

European Cars Required Modifications for US Roads, Laws

And with recent trends being what they were -- and are -- Ford looked to its European division, because that division had more experience building small, fuel-efficient cars than the North American division -- mostly European gas prices were much higher, for much longer, than they were in the U.S.

Some changes had to be made to the previous Euro editions of these models when they were re-designed to be sold here in the U.S. For starters, the Euro editions had to be re-engineered to meet U.S. crash-test standards, which are different than in Europe.

“We also had to take into account durability and road conditions -- European roads tend to be less torturous than our roads here in the U.S., “ says Schirmer. “So the wheels and tires and suspension had to be modified to account for that.

Lots Of Content In European Small Cars

There are some U.S. buyers who, when they hear “small European car,” think of teeny-tiny econo boxes like, say, the Mini Cooper. But, Schirmer says that, historically, “our Focus and Fiesta models in Europe were already significantly larger than most European cars in their compact and sub-compact segments. And the ride and suspension settings in the re-designed models aren’t that different than what they were in the previous European editions.”

And just because the buying trends of American drivers tend to be moving toward smaller vehicles, that doesn’t mean Americans are willing to give up their creature comforts.

Many of the initial orders for the new Fiesta and Focus include higher-end equipment packages, notes Schirmer, including amenities like leather seats, full navigation systems “and other things you would expect to find in larger-car segments. A lot of ‘em are very upmarket.”
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