Ford embraces the big 4-0 in the small car wars

A giant blue-lit number “40” flanked the entrance of Ford Motor Co.’s media event here in New York City Monday night.

It’s a reference to the 2012 redesigned Focus compact and the 2011 new Fiesta subcompact -- both cars offer customers a version with a fuel economy package that earns 40 mpg highway.

Ford’s global product development czar Derrick Kuzak told me pre-orders for the Focus, which is arriving now in dealerships, is very high. He didn’t have any specific numbers though.

As I spoke to other executives throughout the night, it became clear they’re pushing Ford’s fuel economy story to center stage. Sure, technology, quality, and safety are still king at Ford, but fuel economy is the Prince of Wales.

And with gasoline prices creeping past $4 a gallon, a 40 mpg story or fuel economy leadership in any segment becomes an especially compelling marketing strategy, as if it wasn’t already.

But Ford has stiff competition in the small car arena now.

The redesigned Hyundai Elantra is taking the nation by storm. Total Elantra sales through March are up 73 percent.

And, here’s the catch: All versions of the Elantra can boast the big 4-0 highway mpg, not just certain packaged versions…or brightly lit blue lettering in the Big Apple.

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