More MBS CoverageTRAVERSE CITY, MI – Ford Motor Co. is bullish on cross/utility vehicles – but has no plans to abandon the cars, minivans or SUVs whose attributes are combined in CUVs, as the auto maker expands its lineup.

“We made the decision three years ago (to develop CUVs),” says Phil Martens, global vice president-product creation, recognizing consumer appetite for a vehicle that blends the utility of a minivan with the capability of an SUV and ride and handling of a car.

Future product plans likely include production of the Fairlane, a concept shown at this year’s North American International Auto Show, that resembles a European multipurpose vehicle, with suicide doors, rather than the traditional minivan that has been popular in the U.S. since the mid-1980s.

Built on a compact C/D-segment architecture initially developed as the Mazda6 platform, it would be the CUV of minivans.

The Fairlane has not yet received formal approval and technically still is in the “serious study” phase. But Martens says it is far enough along, internally, that he is comfortable talking about it.

And the product chief already is a booster.

“We love it,” he says on the sidelines of the Management Briefing Seminars here. “Everyone sees it as the next people mover. It would be silly not to do it.”

With the fragmentation in today’s marketplace, there is room for the Fairlane, as well as traditional SUVs and other CUVs in the works.

Ford needs both SUVs and CUVs, Martens says, and has no intention of slipping in either segment. He says reports the Freestyle CUV will be phased out are not accurate.

Nor does the minivan go away, Martens says, even though the mature segment may have peaked and Ford’s share continues to fall.

The auto maker believes it can’t afford to exit segments as more competitors enter them.

Driving change is the speed at which the Asian auto makers can copy the Big Three, Martens says, noting they now can mirror Ford’s entire lineup.

The challenge is to work smarter and faster to react to consumer tastes and demand with more niche products that blur the lines of traditional segments.

Reducing the North American workforce is not affecting product cadence, Martens says. “We’ve not changed cycle planning. We’re just making decisions closer to market launch.”

Implementation of a global product development system allows Ford to make product decisions 30 months ahead, he says.

It will allow Ford to introduce the Lincoln Zephyr about 22 months after its Ford Fusion platform mate. And the new Lincoln Aviator CUV, coming in summer 2006 as an ’07, will look very similar to the Aviator concept shown at the 2004 Detroit auto show.

apriddle@primediabusiness.com