Taurus the Homer Simpson of cars?

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 7:06 p.m.

DETROIT - "D'oh!'' What was Ford thinking? Belittling your product probably isn't a great marketing tool, but two top Ford Motor Co. executives recently criticized the looks of the new Taurus sedan, with one comparing it to doofus cartoon character Homer Simpson.

While speaking in Detroit this month, CEO Alan Mulally and Derrick Kuzak, head of global product development, took shots at the current Taurus, with Kuzak likening its looks to the portly, balding, doughnut-devouring Simpson.

During a speech to industry insiders, Mulally hinted that a new, nicer-looking Taurus is coming in the next year or so, adding a crack about the current car.

He projected a slide with Simpson standing above a Ford Five Hundred, the sedan that was renamed the Taurus last year. Next to Homer were cartoon images of Superman and Mr. Incredible, each above small drawings of sleeker versions of the Taurus that could hint at the next generation of the family sedan.

Seldom do auto company executives criticize vehicles on the market, fearing such talk could hurt sales.

"It's really unique,'' said David Koehler, a clinical marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But since it came from the CEO and another top executive, Koehler said it's likely a concerted effort.

Industry analysts say criticism of the Taurus shows that Ford is becoming more candid about recognizing and fixing problems.

In 2006, Ford let the Taurus name die, replacing its flagship family sedan with the Five Hundred.

One of Mulally's first big decisions after being hired away from aviation giant Boeing Co. was to revive the Taurus name last year, placing it on an updated version of the Five Hundred that was given minor exterior changes and a new engine and transmission. Mulally has said he couldn't understand why the company would scrap the Taurus, once the best-selling car in the U.S.

The move, though, failed to resuscitate already sagging sales. Ford sold only 68,178 Taurus and Five Hundred sedans last year, down 19 percent from 2006.

Taurus/Five Hundred sales were only a fraction of Toyota Motor Corp.'s popular Camry, which again was the top-selling car in America last year at 473,108.

Ford's strategy could be aimed at drawing attention to its increased quality and better designs, Koehler said. It also could backfire, leaving the public with the impression that Ford doesn't believe in the existing car, Koehler said.

Ford spokesman Mark Truby said there is no concerted effort to criticize the car. The executives merely wanted to show that with more design freedom, Ford will produce better-looking vehicles, and the Homer Simpson reference was an effort to bring humor to the presentation.

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