As Ford Motor Co.'s 2007 Edge "crossover" vehicle starts rolling into showrooms, some workers in the Buffalo Niagara region will be watching buyers' reactions with special interest.
The struggling automaker is counting on the Edge, along with some other new vehicles, to help turn the company around.
Ford workers in Oakville, Ont., are assembling the Edge using parts and materials from two local plants. Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant in Woodlawn produces 92 percent of the stamped body parts for the new vehicle, and DKP Buffalo opened a steel processing plant in the Town of Tonawanda earlier this year, mainly to serve the stamping plant.
The local interest in the Edge is obvious, but the vehicle is also drawing attention in the auto industry press, as Ford makes a stronger push into the exploding crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, market.
Ford estimates that for the first time, sales of CUVs by all automakers this year will exceed sales of traditional SUVs. It also says that by 2009, the segment is expected to have 70 models.
When the first Edges rolled off the assembly line in Oakville in October, Ford brought in Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky for the occasion. Automotive News estimates about 10,000 Edges have been built so far.
"The launch is progressing and we're building vehicles as planned," said John Arnone, a spokesman for Ford of Canada. Late last week, Ford reported that the first vehicles were being shipped to dealerships.
Ford is well known for its full-size trucks and SUVs. The Edge reflects a step by Ford to grab more of the market for CUVs, which are built on a car platform.
"I don't think it's much of a risk, but I think there's a lot riding on it," said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, who has driven the Edge and gave it a favorable review.
Other critics have also praised the Edge, though some have called the base sticker price of $26,000 high for the segment.
Ford planned to debut the Edge in November, but pushed back the introduction until this month to resolve manufacturing problems. "We are taking extra time," Arnone said. "We are taking measures to ensure top quality."
Arnone noted Consumer Reports recently gave the Ford Fusion a top rating for predicted reliability. He said Ford wants similar results with the Edge, which he described as an "important launch."
"We want to put the same emphasis on the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX in Oakville," he said. The MKX, a luxury companion to the Edge, is also about to debut, with stamped parts from Woodlawn.
Ford lost $7 billion during the first nine months of the year and has said it won't return to profitability until 2009. About 38,000 production workers have signed up for buyouts and early retirement packages, and Ford plans to shutter 16 plants to reduce manufacturing capacity to match lower demand for its products.
Ford expects to sell about 100,000 Edges in the 12 months the vehicle is available, said George Pipas, U.S. sales analysis manager. But demand could go higher. Pipas noted that the vehicle's Web site has logged 1.7 million visits, and 350,000 of those visitors went to the length of "building" a virtual version of an Edge to their preferences and pricing it.
At a display of new Ford vehicles in San Francisco over the summer, some onlookers who saw the Edge remarked that it looked far different from Ford's typical lineup. "It really does have the potential to change people's view of Ford Motor Co.," he said.
Charles Gangarossa, president and chairman of United Auto Workers 897 at the Woodlawn plant, called Edge "the bread and butter" of the plant.
Plant employees are talking up the Edge with friends and family members, in hopes of interesting them in buying one, he said. Gangarossa said such public support for the vehicle would benefit the local economy.
"It keeps people working," he said. The plant has about 1,200 hourly employees.
The Woodlawn plant is churning out the parts with a 4,000-ton new press Ford finished installing this year. Ford spent about $214 million on the project, including the press, related equipment and employee training.
Ford also made a $1 billion investment in the Oakville assembly facility, to turn that plant into a "flexible" manufacturing plant. It is now capable of greater versatility in production, and is able to more swiftly react to changes in market demand.
Back in the Buffalo area, DKP Buffalo in Tonawanda is cutting steel for use by the stamping plant to turn into parts for the Edge.
The plant has about 50 employees, and expects to increase its work force early next year as its production volume picks up, said Gerald Marshall, vice president of operations for Delaco Steel Corp., its Michigan-based parent company.
"That's a big piece of our new business that came in here," Marshall said of the Edge. Marshall said it was the Edge workload that prompted Delaco to open the plant here, rather than just continue to ship product from Michigan to a local warehouse.
"I'm hoping that thing sells like hotcakes," Marshall said.
Brands like Chevrolet and Ford are mainstays in Western New York, which is home to thousands of workers and retirees with ties to Ford and GM production. But Ford could use a boost locally: Sales of Fords at franchised new-car dealers through October were down 12 percent from a year ago, to 8,595 vehicles, according to the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association.
While some higher-volume American brands have reported declines in brand sales locally this year, Japanese names such as Toyota and Honda have reported year-over-year gains, reflecting a national trend that has increased the pressure on the Detroit Three. (Figures for sales of new Chevrolet vehicles, often the local leader in sales, were not disclosed.)
Kevin Blake, sales manager at Towne Ford in Orchard Park, said last week he was awaiting the arrival of his first Edges.
Customers have been dropping in to ask questions and pick up promotional booklets about it. Blake said he has "a lot of people to call when it comes in."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.