By Christiaan Hetzner
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Ford (NYS:F) has drawn on the latest European design trends with its new luxury concept car, tempting the driver with a quilted cream-colored Nappa leather interior to complement its chrome and mocha-hued bodywork.
The Vignale, which makes its first public appearance at the Frankfurt auto show next week and launches in Europe early in 2015, is the latest attempt by a mass-market carmaker to woo affluent customers more interested in a lifestyle than a bargain.
Looks can be deceptive, though. While suggestive of an expensive Italian marque, the Vignale is little more than a pimped-up version of the four-cylinder Ford Mondeo still favored by many a mid-level manager or sales rep.
"This prevents defection of Ford customers who believe they need to go somewhere else as they progress in their careers and make more money," Ford's European sales chief Roelant de Waard says of the new premium line.
The concept, which does not sport the Mondeo badge anywhere on the car, is due to be rolled out across multiple vehicles as a new sub-brand akin to Ford's sporty ST nameplate.
The company remains tightlipped about the Vignale's price tag, but de Waard said it would offer a suitable product at a lower price for customers who find the premium German manufacturers too expensive.
This would suggest a price tag in Germany higher than the 29,450 euros ($38,700) for a Mondeo Titanium, but less than the 33,230 euro Mercedes C-Class.
Ford is by no means the first volume carmaker to take advantage of the increasingly blurred boundaries between premium and mass-market brands now that quality and reliability are no longer exclusive to BMW and Mercedes.
"The potential for differentiation through a product's features has largely been exhausted - models and brands are increasingly homogenous and hence perceived as interchangeable," consultancy firm Arthur D. Little concluded in a study published last week.
France's PSA Peugeot Citroen (UG.PA), for example, is achieving some success by using the pedigree of its DS model, known as the "Goddess", to redefine a new range of premium Citroens.
ADAC, Europe's largest automobile club, said that responses from its annual customer satisfaction survey support Ford's strategy, since the DS line seems to have had a positive impact on the image of the PSA group in the eyes of German car owners.
"Data show that the much more expensive DS3 is often bought because of its design and sportiness, while the most cited reason for purchasing the Citroen C3 is its price tag," said Jan Schreier, project leader for the ADAC survey to be published this month.
Fiat (MIL:F), meanwhile, used the success of its 500 subcompact to spawn a range of Cinquecento variants priced above the core range and now Renault (RNO.PA) plans to create an "Initiale Paris" line of higher-end cars.
FREE CAR WASHING
However, Ford knows that car buyers already well acquainted with luxury and status will not buy a Mondeo simply because it has more expensive leather trim and chrome mouldings.
With this in mind it has also designed a line of Vignale accessories, such as weekend bags, and plans to offer complementary car washes for the life of the vehicle.
Before developing the Vignale, Ford had considered launching its upscale Lincoln badge in Europe. It concluded, however, that the brand lacked the right products, powertrains and prestige to prevail in the crowded market.
"It was better and easier to extend the Ford brand, which already demonstrates upside potential," de Waard said, pointing out that more than half of its sales of larger models are equipped with the highest levels of options and features.
The decision to rule out the Lincoln brand left Ford with limited options.
The U.S. carmaker scrapped its Mercury badge and shed a stable of European luxury brands consisting of Jaguar (TAMO.NS), Land Rover, Volvo (GEELY.UL) and Aston Martin between 2007 and 2010. The strategy was instrumental in saving it from an image-damaging taxpayer bailout - a fate that befell Detroit rivals General Motors (GM.N) and Chrysler (MIL:F).
The need to explore its options for tapping luxury demand has also been driven by upmarket rivals squeezing the volume brands with their own moves in the opposite direction, such as Audi's invasion of the subcompact market.
Ford's Mondeo makeover now aims to emulate BMW's 2001 transformation of the cheap and cheerful Mini into a premium lifestyle product.
De Waard argues that Ford's strong customer base among company car drivers gives the Vignale a good head start despite the overall malaise in Europe's car markets, but he concedes "it's a big bet". ($1 = 0.7601 euros)
(Editing by David Goodman)