BEIJING — Ford'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 automaker wants members of China's growing middle class to think of Ford when they are shopping for their first utility vehicle.
Ford plans to introduce 15 vehicles for China by 2015. The emphasis on SUVs 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.
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.
Ford revealed three other vehicles at Auto China 2012 — 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.
Ford's fourth SUV for Chinese consumers is the Edge, already on sale for a year and imported from Ontario, Canada.
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]," says Dave Schoch, chairman and CEO of Ford China.
A global market
Automakers are looking to China to drive revenue amid weakness in other parts of the world.
Nissan, Toyota, Audi and China's young but ambitious automakers are using Auto China 2012 to showcase luxury sedans and SUVs with China-specific features. The event, China's biggest auto show this year, opens to the public on Friday.
Chrysler announced it will sell a dragon-themed Jeep, with gold-tone accents and dragon designs on headrests and elsewhere.
"To be successful in China, we must tailor our vehicles to the specific tastes of Chinese customers," says Mike Manley, Chrysler's chief operating officer for Asia.
Automakers are targeting both ends of the market, rolling out luxury models for newly rich urban Chinese and economy models for the low-income but vast rural population.
Japan's Infiniti showed a new luxury sedan with a bigger back seat for Chinese businesspeople. Italy's Fiat, trying to rebuild its presence in China after withdrawing in the 1990s, showed the new Viaggio sedan, designed with its local partner Guangdong Automobile Co. to appeal to Chinese buyers. The four-door sedan, with a 1.4-liter engine, goes into production in June at a factory in the southern city of Changsha.
China's independent automakers, aiming to move up to higher-priced market segments, showcased luxury sedans and SUVs with more powerful engines, navigation systems and other features to appeal to more prosperous buyers.
They also showed some of their first low-priced vehicles, aimed at lower-income areas of China.
Chery Automobile Co., the country's top indigenous brand, premiered one of its biggest sedans yet, the Qiyun 5. It has a 1.8-liter engine, which Chery says will be priced at 76,000-100,000 yuan ($12,000-$16,000).
BYD Co., China's second-largest domestic car brand, showed off an updated e6 electric sedan that it says can travel 190 miles on a charge.
"In the short term, competition will be more fierce, especially when international brands are launching low-cost vehicles," says Henry Li, general manager of BYD's export division.