What Is Vignale, and Is It Ford Motor Company's Answer in Its Troubled European Region?


Ford's Mondeo Vignale trim. Source: Ford Motor Company

Every Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F  ) investor knows how much cash has been burned in Europe over the last couple of years. Ford burns through cash in Europe at such a fast rate it might as well use the greenbacks in bonfire cookouts to attract new customers to dealerships. For the most part, Ford's management could have just left that region's earnings slide out of quarterly presentations to help lower investors' blood pressure. 

Burning piles of cash in Europe is a theme that investors can't wait to leave in the dust, once and for all. Despite my joking about leaving the Europe slide off Ford's Q2 presentation, the company's regional losses will be one of the most anticipated topics for investors to determine how close Ford is to breaking even; a move that could have saved $1.6 billion of lost profits last year alone, and $3.5 billion since the beginning of 2012.

Ford's turnaround in Europe could be accelerated by introducing higher-margin products, such as its luxury Lincoln lineup, but the folks at the Blue Oval have another idea in mind. Will it work?

Lincoln isn't the answer?
Ford's Lincoln luxury brand has been essentially starved of innovation and new products up until the last couple of years. Before the Great Recession hit, and nearly brought Ford to its knees, the company had been investing capital into its premier luxury brands that included Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover -- that capital didn't make its way to Lincoln.

When Ford sold off those premier luxury brands to secure capital, that was desperately needed to fund the strategic turnaround of its namesake and core Ford brand, it had only one remaining luxury brand on the books: Lincoln.

Unfortunately, for investors, the turnaround at Lincoln will be a very long process, perhaps decades. For that reason, Ford isn't planning to launch Lincoln into Europe where it would have difficulty competing with Europe's own luxury brands -- industry leading brands such as Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, which have had global success for decades.

But along with reducing production capacity and slashing costs, generating higher margins and transaction prices from luxury vehicle sales will be critical to speeding up Ford's break-even date -- and, gasp, even profitability. So, if Lincoln isn't the answer to Ford driving higher margin sales, what is?

Ford Focus Vignale trim. Source: Ford Motor Company

Enter Vignale
Ford hopes that answer is a new upscale trim called Vignale. The first thought crossing savvy investors' minds would probably be to compare Vignale to the Titanium trim found here in the U.S., but it's actually a step beyond even that premium trim.

Ford is planning for its Vignale models, which will debut in Europe in 2015, to have their own design cues and will be priced about 10% higher than its premium Titanium trim. One example, according to Automotive News, of a premium feature to be included with the Vignale trim is the use of unequal bush sizes on the suspension control arm which is typically only used with premium luxury cars because of its higher expense and increased production complexity. Ford hopes that premium options such as that will convince consumers to step up to purchase the trim, rather than opt for a competitors luxury vehicle.

"I think our opportunity is not necessarily to go head to head with premium brands. But for premium intender customers moving in that direction, it's an opportunity before they make that decision to consider our product line," said Stephen Odell, Ford of Europe president, according to Automotive News.

Currently, Ford has announced plans to produce a Vignale version of the Mondeo (Fusion) and the S-Max crossover in Europe. But there will be many more opportunities to launch more premium Vignale trim models as Ford continues to introduce new vehicles in Europe.

During the next five years Ford will be introducing 25 new vehicles into Europe and two of those will be the highly anticipated Mustang and Edge. In addition to these new vehicle launches representing incremental sales, and thus boosting top and bottom line results, it will rope in additional foot traffic for Ford's dealerships, which could be just important for improving sales and profitability.

Bottom line
Ford's operations in Europe is still a huge drag on the company's earnings, and will continue to be so with the company predicting another $1 billion in losses this year, before breaking even in 2015. But as Ford continues to launch more competitive passenger cars, introduces a more premium trim in Vignale, and slashes production costs, it could mean accelerated profitability after the company reaches its break-even milestone next year -- that's welcome news for investors tired of Europe burning cash by the truckload. 

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