Business Maverick


Ford reduces range but upgrades SA production capacity of Ranger and VW Amarok

Ford reduces range but upgrades SA production capacity of Ranger and VW Amarok
The new Ford Ranger. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Ford seems to have accepted its place in the global order as a manufacturer of trucks and SUVs, leaving the building of accessible cars and crossovers to other companies.

Ford recently invited members of the news media to have a look around its factory in Silverton, near Pretoria. There, they showed journalists an upgraded line that will produce the new Ford Ranger and the new Volkswagen Amarok, which will use the same platform.

It’s dropped production of the Everest, the agricultural SUV version of the Ranger, probably due to poor sales (although Ford says that the SA sales operation was unable to secure supply as it is not a priority market). As a result, while the Ranger brought the fight to the Hilux good and proper, the Everest, despite its nomenclature, never really got out of the foothills, and existed very much in the shadow of the Fortuner.  

The line upgrade is great news for Pretoria and its auto workforce, and Ford’s plan to create a light-duty truck for African and other markets does incorporate the option to expand production to hybrid and electric drivetrains in the future, which is good for longevity in the technical sense, but is, as for the rest of the local manufacturers, predicated on the hope that the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition engages with the industry on the changes required to the regulatory space to make such manufacturing possible. We will have to see — rumours swirl that something is afoot. 

Ford will need to do well in South Africa with the Ranger. Toyota, which occupies the number-one slot for vehicle sales month in and month out with the Hilux, will be grateful that Ford’s ramp-up coincided with the Japanese firm’s Durban factory being out of action for weeks following severe flooding there. A new Ranger, especially a good-looking truck like it is, will offer a clear threat to that leadership.

Unplanned retreat

Ford will need it to do well, because the blue oval is otherwise in what seems like a disorderly and unplanned retreat from South Africa. With the collapse of Ford’s operations in India, over which the local operation has no control, popular local Ford models built there are no longer for sale here, specifically the EcoSport crossover and the Figo hatchback.

Models such as the Fiesta, Focus and Tourneo Connect, aimed at developed markets such as Europe that are compliant with the EU and UK’s safety and emissions standards, were becoming too expensive and sales were in reverse, meaning they won’t bring the current car to SA. The Kuga SUV falls into that category as well, and also had to contend with a public relations catastrophe around its handling of a series of fires involving the car.

A quick look at Ford’s website gives you a sense of the scale of the retreat. Other than the Ranger, the only car you can buy is the Mustang — archaic and a great deal of fun, but not exactly a volume model. You can still get an EcoSport for now, if you like (although the same car has been in production for a full decade now), the Everest, and various incarnations of the Ford Transit van/bus.

I really don’t know how this model range can sustain the 120-odd dealerships the company has in southern Africa, especially when competitors are moving away from the wholesale model to direct online sales and the agency model, in which dealerships merely operate as servicing centres and centres for customer engagement.

Ford’s fate here is illustrative. The survival of a manufacturing operation is good for jobs and skills, and the distant horizon on Ford’s investment timeline is good news as well, but a local offering that consists of a volume truck, a low-selling related SUV, a niche sports car and a van is bad news for dealers — and it’s in the servicing and dealer network where the big jobs numbers are.

Ford SA is very much the grass beneath the elephants’ feet in all of this, as is illustrated by the firm’s inability to secure supply of a product it was building here — the Everest. The sudden demise of its Indian operations means it just doesn’t have the product to sell in a market like ours.

Toyota, apart from the locally built Hilux, HiAce and Fortuner, was in just as bad a bind and also didn’t have appropriate products, but it did have better agreements on a global level. This is why you’re seeing so many Toyota Urban Cruisers and Toyota Starlets around the place — they’re not Toyotas at all, but India-built Suzukis, sold with Toyota badges here and doing stonkingly well. Toyota won’t care, because every time somebody needs a new oil filter or a repaired bumper it’s off to the local Toyota dealer they go, and it just keeps the whole machine running.

Trucks and SUVs

Without its Indian operation, Ford can’t do this, and there’s precious little Ford SA can do about it. Toyota’s recent launch of the Corolla Cross, a crossover SUV, to replace Corolla production in Durban, is the real difference between the two companies. Locally made, available with hybrid drive, and reasonably priced, once Toyota can actually build cars again you’re going to see these things everywhere. 

Ford has no such plans and seems to have accepted its place in the global order as a manufacturer of trucks and SUVs, leaving the building of accessible cars and crossovers to other companies. It’s not like we’re alone in South Africa. Even at home in the US, Ford can’t sell you an actual car apart from the Mustang. It’s quite a turn of events from the company that made mass adoption of the motor car possible.

Toyota, Toyota-badged Suzukis, Suzukis and Volkswagens will move in to fill the space vacated by the EcoSport, Figo, Focus and Fiesta. I recently spent a week at the wheel of a new Volkswagen Polo TSI with a little one-litre engine and an automatic gearbox. It was just superb. The Suzuki Swift, smiles-per-rand, is still one of the best cars I’ve driven all year, and the Brezza/Urban Cruiser is a great little runaround.  

While the brand will be very visible on the road with its startling new truck, I can’t say that the demise of Ford as a manufacturer of cars isn’t a bit sad. I grew up in Fords — Granadas, Sierras, Escorts and so on. I learnt to drive in a 1970s-brown Sierra Estate 1.6-litre. My kids won’t. It seems a pity. DM/BM


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