Ford Edge crossover gaining on its rivals April 9, 2007 BY SARAH A. WEBSTER FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER Ask any car salespeople and they will tell you: Teachers are some of their toughest customers. They tend to study the price of vehicles as well as safety and performance features, with a little more intensity than the average buyer. So when Scott Kuschel, a 35-year-old history teacher at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, decided to buy a 2007 Ford Edge when it hit the market four months ago, his purchase said something good about the future of the new midsize crossover and Ford Motor Co. "As far as enjoyment goes, I would give it a 10," Kuschel said. Ford, which lost a record $12.7 billion in 2006, is depending on the Edge, along with other new products like the Super Duty pickup, to help the automaker return to profitability by 2009. But the Edge came late to market in December, as Ford worked to improve the quality of the launch, fueling concerns it was botching the crucial kickoff. All that concern is solidly behind Ford now -- as the vehicle is rapidly climbing to the top of the crossover charts. The Edge ranks third in midsize-crossover sales, behind the Nissan Murano and Toyota Highlander. Last month, the Edge was fewer than 1,000 sales away from the top spot, capturing about 16% of the midsize-crossover market. Of the 68,439 crossovers sold, 10,915 were Edges. "If it wasn't for the Edge and the Fusion, we'd be hurting," said Steve Rajnert, a salesman at Dorian Ford in Mt. Clemens. Just like the Ford Fusion sedan did in late 2005, he said, the Edge is "starting to take off." Fusion sales have continued to rage in 2007, up a sharp 33% so far compared with the same period a year ago. Sales of the Edge have improved month after month, as is often the case when a vehicle enters the marketplace. But even after four months, it still takes a dealer only 20 days to sell an Edge, far better than the 48 days it takes, on average, to sell other midsize crossovers, according to data from the Power Information Network, a subsidiary of J.D. Power and Associates. Beyond the solid sales results for the Edge also are a lot of golden eggs for Ford. The vehicle is selling at higher-than-average prices with more optional equipment and to younger, more affluent consumers. Eventually, that might mean improved profits for Ford. Last month, Ford sold more than enough Edges to make up for lost Explorer sales. Ford lost 4,281 Explorer sales in March compared with the same month a year ago, a decline of 25%. But consumers bought nearly 11,000 Edges. Now, Ford is preparing an acceleration campaign for the Edge, Ford spokesman Jim Cain said. After a slow start, the automaker is increasing production of the vehicle at its plant in Oakville, Ontario, and preparing for the vehicle's next marketing wave. The current marketing campaign features a hip tune, "Miles and Miles" by Canadian dance-rocker Dee, as vehicles drive on the edges of high-rise buildings. But the new effort is expected to follow in the footsteps of the Fusion Challenge cross-comparison campaign that pits the Ford vehicle against its competitors. Despite the Edge's successes so far, auto dealers and experts are quick to point out that the Edge isn't quite a home run like the Chrysler 300 was when it came to market. The 300 enjoyed such distinguished success that it was credited with buoying Chrysler's financial results and brand image. Still, most industry experts agree that the Edge has been a solid double or triple, at a time when Ford desperately needed to get players on base. Alex Rosten, manager of pricing and market analysis at Edmunds.com, called the Edge "the hot seller," although he was quick to clarify that he didn't mean for the industry. "The hot seller for Ford," he added. "It wasn't a slam dunk." Some might be critical of the Edge for not capturing more buyers from competing brands, since most Edge buyers are trading in another Ford at acquisition. Data from the Power Information Network shows that the top three vehicles being traded for an Edge are the Ford Explorer, Escape and Expedition, and those three SUVs represent about one-fourth of all the trade-ins for the Edge. But Rosten said it's crucial for Ford to hold on to as many of those customers as possible as it bleeds SUV sales. "They're losing Explorer customers by the boatload," Rosten said. "It's better to retain those customers." Because the Edge isn't attracting many consumers from competing brands, some insiders believe the Edge could use some tweaking, especially on price. One dealer, Andy Czajkowski, a small Ford dealer from rural Van Wert, Ohio, said a special lease program, of about $270 a month, would do wonders for the Edge. "That would go great," he said, noting that the current performance is still solid. One of the complaints some dealers and experts had about the Edge was that the most desired versions of the vehicle seem to be running higher than expected in price. For example, the panoramic vista roof, a $1,395 option that provides a large window to the sky over the front and rear seats, isn't available in the base model of the Edge, pushing many customers into an upper-end SEL model of the vehicle. Or, perhaps, to competitors. Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said the vehicle hasn't done so well in middle-income areas, where he called its performance spotty. "Well-equipped versions move pretty quickly" in those areas, he said. "More fully loaded versions are needed. ... Lower-priced and lower-content models are sitting on lots somewhat longer." Indeed, Edmunds.com reports that the average transaction price for an Edge last month was $29,699. That's higher than the crossover's average price in February, and it's also higher than the $28,284 average transaction price for midsize SUVs. "They're buying better-equipped vehicles and dealerships aren't having to discount them as much," Rosten said, explaining Ford's success in getting customers to pay more. Rajnert, the salesman at Dorian Ford in Mt. Clemens, even reported that many consumers are getting DVD players installed in headrests so they still can get the vista roof and don't have to choose between the window ceiling and the DVD screen that flips down from the roof. "I thought they were priced up a bit, but we aren't having a problem selling them," Rajnert said.