Endangered species: Ford's Panther platform [Op-Ed]

Is Ford's venerable, in demand Panther platform about to ride off into the sunset a little too early?

If you've spent any time in New York recently, you've no doubt noticed that the landscape of bright yellow taxi cabs has changed ever-so-slightly. While a Ford Crown Victoria is still the most likely vehicle to respond to your hailing (unless it's raining - buy an overpriced umbrella and start walking), a cadre of more fuel efficient models have become increasingly popular.

Toyota Camry and Highlander hybrids. Ford Escape hybrids. Nissan Altima hybrids. And even the occasional Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

They're all vying for your taxi dollar, but that doesn't mean that New York's grisly taxi drivers necessarily prefer them to the Crown Vic.

By the end of 2010, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission will select a different vehicle as its "Taxi of Tomorrow," a ruling that will forever change New York and its iconic fleets. Ford is set to close its St. Thomas, Ontario, assembly plant by the end of 2011, ending production of the long-lived Crown Victoria and its Panther platform stablemates.

The rise and fall of the Panther
The Panther platform's story begins more than 30 years ago. Developed initially as a low cost downsizing effort, the Panther is now one of the largest new car platforms made. New car buyers' tastes have changed dramatically. Once upon a time, the Panther platform underpinned coupes, station wagons and sedans marketed by all three of Ford's divisions. Remember the Lincoln Continental Town Car Coupe? How about the Mercury Colony Park wagon? One-by-one, Panthers dropped off the chart.

Today, the platform - technically in its third generation but retaining much of its original architecture - underpins a trio of vehicles, two of which serve as division flagships.

Yet Ford doesn't want you to buy one.

Just a few years ago, consumers across North America could walk into Ford, Lincoln and Mercury dealers and emerge with a shiny new Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis or Town Car of their own, new car smell, pride of ownership and all.

Fast forward to the rapidly-approaching 2011 model year and a U.S. resident can only buy a limited-availability, special order-only Town Car. The Crown Victoria is for fleets and the Mercury brand will be gone entirely. Any non-fleet Panther, even the Town Car, has been a forbidden fruit in Canada for a couple of years.

Ford has done nearly everything possible to prevent the public from taking home a Panther of their own.

Cash cow
Given its relatively basic design and its especially long production cycle, the Panther platform can't be expensive for Ford to build. The automaker doesn't detail the exact per-vehicle cost of its products, but odds are that Ford isn't losing cash on Panthers.

Yet Ford doesn't want you to buy one.

No, the Panther platform's various permutations are hardly fitting with Ford's mantra of creating smaller, more efficient and advanced cars. Still, one thing they don't do is struggle to find buyers because they offer a glimpse into a bygone era of Detroit boulevardiers, with their front bench seats, soft suspensions and awkward, space-robbing proportions. Modern they are not, but that doesn't stop Ford from selling lots of them every year.

In the United States during the first six months of 2010, Ford moved 18,439 Crown Victorias, 6,491 Town Cars and 15,702 Grand Marquises. Combined, the three Panthers outsold the rest of the Lincoln lineup and they even managed to outperform the Ford Mustang.

Granted, all Crown Victorias went to less profitable fleet buyers, as did most Lincoln and Mercury Panthers. Clearly, however, there is a strong market for these big six-seat sedans somewhere - and that makes us wonder why Ford would choose to cease production in less than 18 months from now.

A solution?
For New York's cabbies, there is no good replacement for the Crown Victoria.

It's cheap to run, durable and provides a good combination of room and space - especially compared to smaller sedans and SUVs.

"The car is good the way it is," cabbie Jana Stroe told USA Today. We don't want the hybrid. Hybrids have so many problems. We take a lot of customers from the small cars."

Ford thinks that its Transit Connect vans will make good replacements for Crown Vic taxis. On paper, they look pretty good. They're roomy and have plenty of storage space and they don't sip much gas. But despite their commercial positioning, they're not as inherently rugged or simple and they cut a rather odd profile across the New York cityscape.

These complaints about the Panther's untimely demise come from all sorts of fleet users - police officers, limousine drivers and even car rental agencies, which continue to see strong demand for the Grand Marquis.

Yet Ford doesn't want you to buy one.

Why Ford refuses to update the Panther platform for at least one more permutation is mind boggling. Add in stability control (a 2012 federal requirement), a six-speed automatic (already mated to the Panther's 4.6-liter V8 in several other vehicles) and tweak the gearing for a few more mpgs and the Panther can soldier on for at least a few more years.

Cabbies and police officers would appreciate a slightly less thirsty Crown Victoria and real profits would come from a mildly revised Town Car. Ford isn't getting MSRP for fleet Town Cars, but even a hefty discount off of the $46,700 price it charges consumers is money in the bank.

Certain consumers still love the Grand Marquis. A major Florida Mercury dealer says that Grand Marquises don't stay long on his lot before finding a home with a member of their traditional buyer base. With distribution centered on Ford and Lincoln showrooms in places like Florida, Arizona and the Midwest, Ford could easily offer the Grand Marquis as its own brand-within-a-brand minus the Mercury badge.

Progress is a great thing, but sometimes automakers need to appreciate the devoted customers they have developed.

1.'NYC cabs give...' view