Car shoppers turn increasingly to Ford. It’s gaining notice by avoiding bailout help.

BY BRENT SNAVELY • FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER • April 9, 2009

Evidence is mounting that the few customers who are shopping for new cars and trucks in this tough market are increasingly turning to Ford Motor Co. because it hasn’t asked for federal aid and is perceived as healthiest of the Detroit Three.

Craig Lahti, 32, of Wixom grew up in a “GM family” but purchased a Ford Focus last month.

“It was largely due to the fact that they’ve managed their business affairs better, in my opinion,” Lahti said. “Not only … did they not take the loans, but just seems that they are heading down the right road.”

General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have accepted $17.4 billion in federal loans and are now struggling to meet the terms mandated by the federal government in order to receive additional funding. Ford, in contrast, decided in December not to ask for federal loans, even though it reported a record $14.6-billion loss for 2008.

Since then, Ford executives and dealers have been pushing the message that “Ford is different,” which seems to be resonating with customers.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said his research shows that the percentage of people who list Ford as a top brand to shop increased 12 points during the first quarter of this year compared with last year.

“It indicates that Ford really dodged a bullet,” Spinella said.

Spinella said Ford is mostly attracting buyers who previously preferred to buy GM and Chrysler vehicles, but are worried about the possibility of those companies filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Last Friday, Tustin, Calif.-based AutoPacific said only 3% of Americans participating in a recent online survey were unaware that GM and Chrysler had received billions of dollars in federal loans. It also said 72% of respondents were more likely to buy a Ford vehicle.

Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, said the number of visitors who shopped for Ford vehicles during the first three months of the year increased 12% compared with the same year-ago period. Meanwhile, the number shopping for GM and Chrysler vehicles declined 19% and 15%, respectively, during the same period.

Despite the positive research about Ford, the company continues to struggle. In March, Ford U.S. sales of new cars and trucks declined 40.8% compared with the same month a year ago. Industry-wide sales, by comparison, showed a decline of 36.8%.

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