DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. isn't giving up on cars, CEO Mark Fields says, even as the automaker abandons most U.S. production of them, but it also won't keep piling on discounts to boost sales "unnaturally."
"You can only go so far in terms of trying to entice customers to purchase those kinds of products," Fields said in an interview last week. "We'll focus on some of the segments where customers are migrating towards, whether it's SUVs or pickup trucks, and we're doing nicely there."
That shift in consumer preferences is behind Ford's plan to end small-car production in the U.S. by 2018 as it opens a plant in Mexico, a strategy that has made the company a constant punching bag for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Ford, which benefited for years from its decision to forgo a federal bailout in 2009, has struggled to counter Trump's narrative that it is prioritizing profits over American jobs.
Fields said the realities of the market make continuing to build small cars at the Michigan Assembly Plant near Detroit unfeasible. But it's not cutting jobs at the plant, instead repurposing it to make a Ranger midsize pickup and Bronco SUV, according to sources with direct knowledge of the plan.
Fields, while declining to confirm those vehicles, argued that the workers there will end up better off than they are today, periodically subjected to weeklong layoffs because demand for the vehicles they produce is falling.
"At the end of the day, we have to make sure that as a business we are providing compelling products for customers at the right value that provide a good return for the company, so we can then reinvest in the products, in the people, in the facilities," Fields said. "With these exciting products that we're bringing in, it's actually a net win for the UAW."
It's a major reversal of course for Ford, which converted Michigan Assembly from hulking SUVs to small cars after gasoline prices soared heading into the recession. Fields' predecessor, Alan Mulally, told USA Today in 2008 that the dramatic shift away from big gas guzzlers "is going to be permanent."
Now, Fields said Ford is keeping that experience in mind even as it heads in the opposite direction, promising four new SUV nameplates by 2020. He said the "small-car offensive" Ford announced in 2008 -- which Fields executed as president of the Americas -- wasn't a misstep because it gave the company's car lineup a sorely needed overhaul, even if the assumptions underpinning it were mistaken.