When Citibank unveiled the replacement program for its defunct Ford Motor Co. cobranded card this week, industry experts expressed surprise at the tactics the bank chose.
Citibank said that only former Ford card holders are eligible for the new program, Driver's Edge, which offers them a less generous rebate than the Ford card, but allows them to select a vehicle from any manufacturer.
The other difference between the two programs is less obvious to consumers: Citibank is absorbing the entire cost of the Driver's Edge rebate and will pay for automobiles that will be raffled off once a month until August.
"I'm confused by the profitability of this product," said credit card consultant Michael Auriemma, president of his own Westbury, N.Y. firm.
Driver's Edge gives cardholders a 2% rebate on card purchases, up to $500 a year. Rebates will take the form of a check made out to the cardholder, and are capped at $1,500 for each vehicle purchased. There is no annual fee.
The Ford program, also a no-fee product, allowed cardholders to earn a 5% rebate on their purchases, up to $700 a year with a maximum of $3,500. But the car manufacturer chipped in to underwrite the cost of the rebate, which eventually proved to be too costly for Ford.
In July, Citibank announced that Ford was ending the program on Dec. 31. On Jan. 1, all Ford card holders were automatically converted to the Driver's Edge program, which will not be offered to new customers.
Maria Mendler, a Citibank spokeswoman, said the bank may allow some of its other customers who request the Driver's Edge card to switch. About five million of Citibank's 39 million card customers in the United States had a Ford card, say analysts.
Gary Gordon, a PaineWebber analyst, questioned the economics of the Driver's Edge program, saying the size of the rebate might outweigh the profits Citibank could reap from merchant fees.
"A 2% rebate means you are losing money on the spending," Mr. Gordon said. "The only thing that makes sense is for Citibank to target people who borrow."
Driver's Edge will not be profitable for Citibank, card experts said, unless cardholders carry balances from month to month. Moreover, they said, Citibank may be counting on the extra time it will get from people who do not redeem their points for several years, since the average car buyer makes a purchase about every four years.
Driver's Edge cards will carry an interest rate based on the prime rate plus between 7.4% and 10.4%. To get the rebate, cardholders must give Citibank two documents showing that a vehicle has been purchased or leased.
"This is fundamentally a cash-back rebate card, like Discover," said Mr. Auriemma.
The name Driver's Edge comes from a small product test, begun in 1992, in which Citibank offered cardholders points toward gasoline at any gas station.