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Ford trims production of Excursion SUV

The 7,000-pound vehicle, a target for critics, has had sluggish sales. Meanwhile, parts problems will delay the Explorer's redesign.

Ford Motor Co. will cut production this fall of the Excursion sport utility vehicle, the heavyweight among SUV models, in response to slow sales. Ford also has delayed a redesign of its popular Explorer SUV, despite strong sales, because of problems in getting parts.

There was no sign that sales of gasoline-thirsty SUVs or other trucks are weakening, despite gas prices that this year climbed to 20-year highs.

Ford spokesman George Pipas said Thursday that production of the 2001 Excursion would be cut by 25 percent, from about 69,000 vehicles a year to 52,000 vehicles a year. The Kentucky plant where the Excursion is made will use the extra capacity to build more Super Duty F-Series pickups, boosting production from 374,000 to 407,000 a year.

Pipas said the changes were made to bring Excursion output more in line with customer demand. Through April, Ford had sold 15,838 Excursions this year. The company had a 107-day supply of Excursions at the end of April, according to Ward's Automotive Reports. The industry standard is a 60-day supply.

"When we first introduced the truck, we talked about the market that would probably be about 50,000 units in the U.S.," Pipas said. "We set up production to do more than that, to protect for higher-than-anticipated demand."

The 19-foot-long, 7,000-pound Excursion has been a controversial vehicle for Ford, dwarfing most cars and many other SUVs on the road. Ford has been criticized by environmental groups because the Excursion is so big and its fuel mileage is so low _ as little as 10 miles a gallon with the optional V10 engine.

Those criticisms have stood out as Ford chairman William Clay Ford Jr. has tried to improve the company's environmental reputation, even admitting that SUVs are generally worse for the environment than passenger cars.

To blunt the criticism, the company made the three engines available on the Excursion meet California's low-emission standard for light trucks and says 85 percent of the SUV can be recycled.

The Excursion, which sells for $34,000 to $42,000, depending on options, has another appeal for Ford _ its profit margins. With a profit estimated at $15,000 per vehicle by industry analysts, it ranks among the most profitable of any vehicle Ford sells.

Ford has said the Excursion would do better among traditional truck customers and in rural areas where towing was important, instead of appealing to the majority of SUV buyers who seek more car-like attributes.

John Pappas, a salesman at Bonnell Motors Inc. in the Boston suburb of Winchester, Mass., says while other Ford SUVs and full-size trucks roll off the lot quickly, only one Excursion has been sold since August.

"There's no demand for it," he said. "The gas mileage is against it. . . . If you're going to tow 8,000 pounds or haul nine people, then you have some probable use for it."

Other dealers say they wish they had more. "If we had them, we could sell them," said Rodney Williams, fleet sales and leasing manager at Sea-Tac Ford Truck Sales in Seattle. "When they first came out a lot of people came through who were kind of curious. Then sales picked up."

Michael Robinet, an industry analyst with CSM Forecasting, said unlike other models, Ford had to be careful to closely match Excursion demand with supply. A buyer who doesn't want a vehicle that large isn't going to be swayed by cheap financing rates or incentives, making extra vehicles hard to sell.

Ford truck demand remains high; Pipas said Ford needed more Super Duty pickups, with a 45-day supply at the end of April. The Excursion is built using the chassis and parts of the Super Duty pickup, making production changes easier and cheaper.

In terms of effect on Ford's finances, the move "is probably a wash," said Joseph Phillippi, auto industry analyst with PaineWebber. "They probably make as much on a Super Duty as they make on an Excursion."

The changes were disclosed Wednesday by Martin Inglis, vice president for Ford North America, in a meeting with industry analysts. Inglis also told analysts that new four-door versions of the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs would be delayed by a few months.

Ford had said the new models would go into production late this year, but Pipas said that has now been pushed back to early 2001 due to problems getting parts from suppliers.

Explorer sales have stayed fairly strong, Pipas said, due to the introduction of the Explorer Sport Trac, a 4-door pickup built off the Explorer assembly line, and a restyling of the 2-door Explorer model.