20 Sept 2013

Is the world ready for the super-luxurious Ford Mondeo Vignale?

At the Frankfurt Autoshow, Ford launched the Mondeo ‘Vignale’. It is the first model in a new super-luxury sub-brand Ford hopes will steal sales from the Mondeo’s premium-badged rivals that have been eating into its market for over a decade. We’ll come back to exactly what Ford hopes to achieve with ‘Vignale’ later, but first, some background.

To most British minds, the Ford Mondeo is the archetypal sales-rep’s company car. And for the first half of its 20-year history at least, it sold in suitably huge numbers. So huge in fact, that the Labour Party arguably won the 1997 general election by targeting a type of voter Tony Blair christened ‘Mondeo Man’.
Ford Mondeo Vignale

So the Mondeo is a highly influential car then? Well yes, but then again, no. You see, the Mondeo has been gradually sliding down the sales charts ever since 1994, it’s first full year of production, when UK sales peaked at 127,122.  In 2012, the Mondeo’s sales barely passed 22,000 units.

There are many reasons for this, almost none of which are to do with the car itself. Through three generations, the Mondeo has always been a brilliant car - spacious, refined, good value and let’s not forget its signature superb handling. The problem is the Mondeo’s place in the world, a place that has become less and less relevant.

Until relatively recently, large hatchbacks and saloons like the Mondeo enjoyed a comfortable existence in a car market that was easy to understand. Car buyers asked simple questions and the Mondeo provided simple answers. Then manufacturers started building cars that answered questions no-one had actually asked. Small MPVs offered better practicality and flexibility, and crossover SUVs had a high driving position and rugged styling with car-like handling. Buyers flocked to them in droves.

But that is not the whole story. While the easily pigeon-holed Mondeo has undoubtedly lost sales to the likes of the more complicated Citroen Picasso and Honda CR-V, there is a much bigger thorn in it’s side: the BMW 3-Series.

Ironically, Tony Blair is arguably responsible for the 3-Series’ surge in popularity. The increased affluence of the Blair era saw company car budgets go up, so Mondeo Man suddenly found he could afford a 3-Series. And because he cares what his mates think, he would much prefer BMW’s blue and white propellor on his car keys over Ford’s blue oval.

Even in our current straightened times, the BMW massively out-sells the Ford in the UK. Indeed, by a factor of two to one last year. After all, once you’ve had a taste of the finer things in life, you’ll do anything to avoid going back downmarket. And it’s that perceived lack of prestige that Ford is trying to combat with Vignale.

Ford’s attempt to move itself upmarket is not without precedent. In recent years Hyundai has pushed itself into luxury car territory in the USA where the Genesis and Equus saloons are genuine cut-price alternatives to the Mercedes E- and S-Class. Closer to home Citroen’s individualistic, near-luxury ‘DS’ models have successfully added glitz to an otherwise prosaic range. And let’s not forget Toyota’s hugely successful Lexus brand.

It at least seems that buyers aren’t averse to the concept of a luxury Ford. The current top-tier ‘Titanium X’ trim package, which comes loaded with pretty much every bell and whistle that can be crammed into it, accounts for around 50 per cent of Mondeo sales.

So what exactly will mark out the Mondeo Vignale when it goes on sale in late 2015?  Ford has yet to announce full details, but the car shown at Frankfurt is certainly lavishly equipped and trimmed. From the diamond-quilted leather upholstery to the jewel-like detailing, the interior is very plush. Plus you get the very latest version of Ford’s infotainment and connectivity systems. And tellingly, you won’t find a single Mondeo badge anywhere on the car.
Ford Mondeo Vignale interior

But the Vignale experience will extend beyond the car. Again, details are sketchy at the moment, but it seems like it will be a lot like an executive frequent fliers’ service. Showrooms will have a special member’s club-type area for Vignale (and ST, incidentally) customers and after-sales service will be on the same sort of one-to-one basis employed by Infiniti. There will likely be a concierge service, and access to first-class lounges at airports, and so on. The Vignale brand will eventually also be applied the next S-MAX MPV (revealed in concept form at Frankfurt) and Edge SUV.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note the timing of Vignale’s unveiling. The fourth-generation Mondeo’s arrival in Europe has been significantly delayed by Ford’s decision to close the car’s current factory in Belgium and move production to Spain. As a result, Europe won’t get the new Mondeo until late 2014, by which point it will have been on sale in the USA (badged Fusion) for around two years. Vignale seems to be the first piece in the marketing puzzle.

Can Vignale help the Mondeo claw back sales from the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, then? It’s tough to know. The car itself is unlikely to be a problem. It was very well received in the States and may well go straight to the top of the class in Europe. And Ford probably learnt a thing or two about building luxury cars from its time as Jaguar and Land Rover’s owner.

A lot depends on the price. The current top-spec Mondeo that’s proving so popular is priced well into the high twenties, but press speculation has put the Vignale in the £40,000 bracket. That’s top-end territory even for its premium-badged German rivals. For that kind of money, Ford needs to put together a genuinely useful package of services and benefits that actually works and comes with stand-out customer service.

In that case, buyers who would normally default to one of the established premium brands could be persuaded to see past the Ford badge, and see Vignale as a premium brand in its own right. That’s certainly what Ford is aiming for and it’ll be fascinating to see if they achieve it.

Article by Graham King

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