Ford began selling the Fiesta subcompact in Canada this summer and, while it's a very fuel-thrifty ride, Ford in North America isn't offering the most fuel-efficient Fiesta in the world. And that's a shame.
For "business reasons," Ford in Canada and the United States can't offer the Fiesta ECOnetic even though in Europe it's been sold as a sporty subcompact with seating for five, loads of electronic features and fuel economy rated at - hold on to your hat here - 3.6 litres/100 kilometres, or 65 miles per U.S. gallon.
The Fiesta ECOnetic is a perfect illustration of the sort of vehicle for sale in Europe that so far cannot break into the North American marketplace.
The Ford Fiesta joy ride
It runs on diesel fuel and, while it's a nifty little fuel sipper, the cost to make this runabout certified for emissions in all 50 U.S. states and Canada is prohibitive. Even if that were not the case, Ford officials doubt enough American buyers would want the ECOnetic to make it successful.
Americans, more than Canadians, have an antipathy to diesels that borders on the neurotic or the foolish. Research in the U.S. suggests that Americans still view diesel as something that powers tractor trailers, not passenger cars - even though diesels vehicles now going on sale in Europe and in North America are equipped with pollution-fighting technology that makes them as clean as the cleanest gasoline vehicles, but with at least 30 per cent more fuel-efficiency.
In Germany, the streets are filled with high-tech diesels. In fact, half of all cars sold in Europe run on diesel. Gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius are little more than novelties in Berlin and elsewhere, despite well-documented green sensibilities in Germany. Diesels, on the other hand, are central to every auto maker's business plan.
But the problem with trying to bring cars like the ECOnetic to North America centres on costs. That is, the ECOnetic's engines are built in Britain where labour costs are high and productivity is mediocre, at least in the auto industry. Currency issues only compound the problem. The bottom line is that Ford doesn't believe it could charge enough to make money on an imported ECOnetic. So the Fiestas we get in Canada ($12,999-$18,199) and the United States are built in Mexico and they run exclusively on gasoline.
To date, only Volkswagen has managed to make a business case for small, affordable diesels in North America. VW's Golf ($20,175 base, with the diesel starting at $24,975) and Jetta ($15,875 base, with the diesel starting at $23,875) are key entries for Europe's biggest auto maker and until someone else brings a small diesel to Canada and the United States, they have the marketplace to themselves.
However, we appear to be on the verge of a seeing a wave of diesels come to North America from Europe. Mazda, for instance, will bring clean diesels to North America in 2012 as part the company's SKY powertrain initiative. Mazda Canada will offer diesels in Canada - clean diesels that do not require any extra exhaust treatments. They are being worked up for the world in Japan and by Mazda's European research and development team.
Mazda has high hopes for its diesels in Canada and the United States, but they are essential for Europe. Mazda sees great potential for growth in Europe and needs a more complete diesel array of offerings. Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan, is, in fact, pirouetting toward Europe for inspiration in an effort to expand globally.
Europe, now a larger new-vehicle market than Canada and the United States combined, is a hub for smaller vehicles powered by smaller engines that emit modest emissions - including ever-lower CO2 - yet make big power. Mazda, like Ford and other auto makers, knows that many European cars manage to combine refinement, driving pleasure, fuel economy and low emissions. They believe that amounts to a sellable combination in North America.
"Europe is five years - I don't want to say ahead of us, but every car you see" at big European auto shows trumpets low greenhouse-gas emissions, often more boldly than horsepower or price, John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said earlier this year at the Detroit auto show.
No wonder South Korea's Hyundai tapped its German studio to design the revamped 2010 Tucson. And it's also of little surprise to see Hyundai move to a European-style approach to powertrains. The Tucson is sold only with a four-cylinder engine, as is the mid-size Hyundai Sonata, which is all-new this year.
Krafcik, by the way, is a former Ford vehicle development executive. Given his background, it makes sense for him to appreciate Europe's approach to new products and technologies. Indeed, Ford is moving quickly to tap its European operations for new models, designs and ideas - led by Derrick Kuzak, the head of global product development for Ford who formerly headed product development at Ford of Europe.
For decades, Ford's European headquarters have been on Henry Ford Street in Cologne, Germany. From there, Ford has designed and developed models that have been rated highly by critics, valued by buyers, embraced by driving enthusiasts - and not sold in the United States. Cars like the Fiesta ECOnetic.
Now, though, Ford is moving to bring to Canada and the U.S. vehicles developed first for Europe. The Fiesta is one, the 2012 Focus another. When the new Focus goes on sale early next year, it will be the "European Focus" that driving enthusiasts have long craved.
And make no mistake, the high-volume compact Focus will be Ford's most important new car this decade. If the 2012 Focus is a hit, Ford's "One Ford" plan to integrate product planning and development globally will be proved a success. Ford hopes to sell all sorts of Focus variations using the same basic platform - from the Grand C-Max seven-passenger van due in Canada in 2011 to a small sport-utility expected to replace the current Escape.
General Motors, too, is using its European operations to provide the foundation for a number of new models. Among them are the 2011 Buick Regal, which was developed in Germany by GM's Opel subsidiary (where the car is sold as the Opel Insignia) and the upcoming Chevrolet Cruze compact car, also a product of GME (General Motors Europe). Chevy's Spark, which was earlier shown to reporters in Detroit, is a minicar with European roots coming to North America in 2012. And the Orlando, due in the Canada (but not the United States) in 2011, is a European compact van based on the Cruze/Opel Astra.
Then there is the Chrysler Group. The smallest Detroit auto maker now is controlled by Italy's Fiat Group, from which Chrysler plans to tap a host of new models. For starters, Fiat plans to send to North America a version of its Fiat 500 mini-car later this year.
Moreover, the Chrysler/Fiat five-year business plan rolled out late last year says that by 2014, 38 per cent of Chrysler vehicles will have four-cylinder engines compared to just 19 per cent today. Expect more diesels, too. Diesels are to grow to 14 per cent of Chrysler's North American mix, up from 9 per cent - all trucks - now. Virtually all these car engines will be supplied by Fiat.
So it seems Europe is about to become the source of a much broader range of vehicles and technologies than ever before. Will buyers embrace Euro-market tastes? The answer at least in part lies in where fuel prices go. If they remain at current levels or even drop, then the push to small vehicles with European roots might be a flop.
It also remains to be seen whether Canadian and American buyers will buy option-loaded, premium-priced small cars in the same way Europeans do. Small cars with big price tags? Not something for North Americans in the past.
Nonetheless, the European approach is coming. That is, more of what's on the streets in Berlin will be landing in Canadian and U.S. dealer showrooms.
Compact Jetta goes big