Initial production of the new Focus C-Max multi-purpose vehicle (MPV or minivan) began on Friday at Ford’s assembly plant in Saarlouis, Germany. The new model is due to go on sale in the autumn of 2003 and will be offered in 33 European countries.

Ford plans to manufacture 96,000 new Focus C-Max vehicles to the end of this year, with production capacity operating at a rate up to 1,060 per day. The total daily vehicle production capacity at Saarlouis plant, which also manufactures the Focus range, is 1,735 units and the C-Max will share the Focus assembly line.

Ford has invested more than 400 million euros in the production of the new vehicle, including an extensive renewal of the body plant and stamping facility. 490 new robots have been added to the existing 450 and a new stamping line meets new quality and flexibility standards.

“We provided our Saarlouis plant with the capability of switching production between the two models quickly and easily. This enables us to be agile in our response to changes in customer needs,” said Ford of Europe manufacturing head John Fleming.

The Saarlouis plant employs around 7,000 people.

The original design for a five-seat C-Max was reportedly axed in mid-devlopment after General Motors Europe launched its seven-seat Zafira with ingenious ‘Flex 7’ seat folding mechanism that hides the rearmost row in the boot floor when not required.

Ford was expected to respond with a seven-seat C-Max but recently debuted a redesigned five-seater instead.

In a statement on Friday announcing the start of production, Ford said its designers opted not to configure the new C-Max for seven seats “to avoid compromised driving quality and interior comfort. Instead, [the vehicle’s ] flexibility has been geared to offer ample space for three rear-seat passengers or significantly improved legroom and shoulder room when there are only two.”