Ford Motor Co. will further penetrate the cross/utility vehicle (CUV) segment in 2004, Ward's has learned.

Sources say the vehicle — resembling a fusion of beefy wagon and streamlined SUV — will roll off the line at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant.

Chris Theodore, Ford's vice president-North American product, confirms the No.2 auto maker has a CUV in its pipeline, having previously stated “segment-busters” are under development.

Asked when the CUV will become available, Theodore says: “When it's ready.” But a source says engineering on the vehicle is approaching completion. And Ward's is assured, despite widespread reports to the contrary, it will not share a platform with Taurus.

The new vehicle's demographic target is the motorist who's grown tired of a truck-like ride and seeks utility without bulkiness.

Ford also will make an aggressive play for male buyers with a large car resembling the LS, Lincoln's popular mid-luxury car. But the impending vehicle is not, Ward's is told, a Taurus replacement.

Introduction of these models cannot come soon enough, according to industry observers.

Ford faces a relative dry spell in product until the 2005 model year, when its launch activity will pick up dramatically, says a team of Merrill Lynch analysts.

A Merrill Lynch report says, “Hybrids will take a vastly larger share of auto makers' new product launches in 2002-2005. Together with traditional light trucks (SUVs, vans and pickups), they will likely account for half of new product activity by 2005.”

Key to the Ford CUV's success is price point, adds Mike Wall, auto analyst with IRN Inc. Young buyers also are fertile territory for a crossover market that features the likes of Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, Wall says. This means stickers in the $20,000 neighborhood.