Jerry and Ann Grell were at the California International Auto Show here last week looking for a fuel-efficient family car.
The Grells run a horse-ranch service company in Lake Matthews, Calif., a town built around a reservoir in Riverside County in the greater Los Angeles area.
The Grells use pickup trucks in their business. Those trucks swallow gallons of fuel. So, on a temperate Sunday when they may have preferred being somewhere else, they were standing in a shuttle-bus line waiting for a ride to the Anaheim Convention Center, where they hoped to find a fuel-sipper for personal use.
I met them in line; and as such meetings often progress, we talked about our origins and what we do for a living, which, in my case, led to an unending conversation about cars and trucks.
That suited Ann Grell just fine. She wanted a list of the "most fuel-efficient cars." But she made it clear that she did not want a cheap automobile, something that looked and drove like an economy car. Nope. She and Jerry had worked too hard most of their adult lives to settle for something flimsy.
I suggested the new Ford Fusion, Ford Motor Co.'s -- believe it or not -- sexy and fuel-efficient replacement for the Taurus mid-size sedan.
The Fusion comes with a 3-liter, 221 horsepower engine, and a six-speed automatic transmission. According to Ford's engineers, it gets 32 miles per gallon on the highway. It has an excellently crafted interior that rivals anything found in luxury models. The car certainly appears to be a potentially strong competitor against the best-selling mid-size cars out there, such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
But Ann Grell looked at me with undisguised incredulity when I suggested that she consider buying a Ford.
"Ford?" she asked. "Ford!" She rolled her eyes, shook her head. "Don't much care for Fords. Can't remember the last time I drove a Ford."
Her words yielded similar comments from others in the line. Some wag behind us could not resist the temptation to offer a well-worn joke: "Ya know what FORD means, dontcha?" Hee, hee. "It means Fix Or Repair Daily." Hee, hee.
None of this surprised Jyarland (pronounced YAR-land) Daniels Jones, who at the tender age of 31 has the seemingly onerous task of making the Fusion a success in the United States, which means making it sell in California, the world's fifth-largest economy and arguably the most important sales state in America.
"California is a critically important market. But we haven't done well here in recent years in the car segment, mostly because we haven't had much to sell," Jones said. "Ford had ignored the median-car segment," she said, echoing comments from auto industry analysts who say that the nation's second-largest car company placed too many of its products in the big truck basket.
Ford trucks, especially heavy-duty models such as the diesel-powered F-350, still sell well in California. But even those run a distant second behind General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet and GMC models. Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. haven't made things any easier for Ford with their big trucks. Neither has the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler Corp., which has been fighting successfully for its share of the California truck dollar with its revised Dodge Ram and Dakota truck lines.
Things are so bad for Ford in this state, you could sit on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning, a place of the eternal car show, and watch the street for hours without seeing a single new-model Ford rolling along. But finding a Toyota or Honda is absolutely not a problem.
"We know that California is import-biased," said Jones, which means that Ford has to offer substantially more than the Camry and Accord to win mid-size car sales. So, Ford is doing something quite hip: In addition to having the Fusion featured at regional rock concerts, it has contracted the services of automotive bling-bling houses such as Funkmaster Flex to hip-hop the automobile into rock star celebrity status.
The Fusion also will make appearances in NASCAR races; and it's a safe bet, although Jones offered no specific numbers, that Ford will spend the bulk of its U.S. advertising dollars on the Fusion in the Great State of California.
The company is pushing the Fusion's virtues of "styling, value and driving excitement," Jones said of the car, which starts at a bit above $21,000.
She says that both the car and its message are strong enough to at least get Californians to sit in the car, and maybe take it for a spin.
"If they sit in it and drive it, they will buy it," Jones said.
I met the Grells again on my way out of the convention center. We'd both been in the place for several hours, but the Grells hadn't yet visited the Ford stand. They said they might do that.
If Jones can get the Grells into a Fusion, if she can get them to buy it, she just might become a rock star celebrity in her own right.