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Ford to rely on SUVs in China, target growing middle class

By Alisa Priddle, Detroit Free Press –

BEIJING — Ford Motor Co.’s China strategy centers on four new SUVs as that segment gains traction in the world’s largest auto market, and it will build at least two of them locally, executives said at the Beijing auto show.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker wants members of China’s growing middle class to think of Ford when they are shopping for their first utility vehicle.

Ford built its North American profits before the downturn of 2008-09 on trucks and SUVs, but has worked to rebuild its car lineup to get Americans to think of the company as a passenger car and truck manufacturer.

Ford plans to introduce 15 vehicles for China by 2015. The emphasis on utility vehicles aims to tap into a segment that Ford projects will grow by more than 10 percent annually. The vehicles accommodate families and are engineered to navigate poor, rugged roads in China’s rural areas.

Chinese consumers bought more than 2 million SUVs last year. The segment is projected to grow along with China’s middle class.

For the Chinese market, the smallest SUV will be the compact Ford EcoSport, powered by a 1-liter EcoBoost engine, the smallest of the company’s turbocharged engine family.

The EcoSport will be built in Chongqing, a large city in southwestern China where Ford has concentrated most of its manufacturing and targeted most of its total $4.9 billion investment in the country.

The SUV will also be assembled in Chennai, India; Camacari, Brazil, and Rayong, Thailand.

Ford revealed three other vehicles in Beijing this week — the Ford Explorer; the Kuga, sold as the Escape in the U.S.; and the Focus ST performance compact car.

The Kuga will also be built in the Chongqing complex. It will be added to the recently completed Changan Ford Mazda Automobile Chongqing Plant 2 that began making the Focus in February.

Ford’s fourth SUV for Chinese consumers is the Edge, already on sale for a year and imported from Oakville, Ontario.

The new Ford Focus ST is new to China, but Ford will continue to sell the outgoing model as a more affordable alternative. The existing model will be rebadged as the Classic Focus and will continue to be built in China.

Ford vehicles will also have the Sync in-car connectivity system.

“We’re excited that Sync will be available in Mandarin (voice recognition),” said Dave Schoch, chairman and CEO of Ford China.

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