DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Gasoline that has risen to 2008 prices may cause a shift in consumers' car-buying patterns, said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas.
"There is a natural kind of water level that if a gallon of gas goes over, that may shift the market mentality," Fields said Thursday at a factory in suburban Detroit where Ford's redesigned Focus small car has begun production.
"When it starts getting over $4 a gallon or gets to triple digits when you fill up your tank, that catches people's attention."
U.S. regular unleaded gasoline prices rose 27 percent from a year earlier to an average $3.55 a gallon on Wednesday, according to AAA.
U.S. gasoline prices peaked at $4.11 per gallon in July 2008, according to AAA. The new Focus, which goes on sale this month, and the Fiesta subcompact that debuted in June are the foundation of CEO Alan Mulally's bet that U.S. buyers will pay more for fuel-efficient small cars equipped with amenities typically found in larger models.
The Focus gets 40 miles per gallon on the highway and starts at about $17,000, with some versions priced as high as $29,000. Worldwide sales of the Focus and its global variants are targeted to reach 2 million by 2012, which will cut costs by having more than 80 percent of parts in common, Ford has said.
"We couldn't be launching the Focus at a better time," Fields said today. "We're in a much better position to handle anything the market throws at us."
Ford, the only major U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy in 2009, earned $6.56 billion in 2010, the most since 1999. New models such as the Fiesta and redesigned Taurus sedan helped 2010 U.S. sales rise 17 percent, outpacing the industrywide gain of 11 percent.
Mulally, who came to Ford from Boeing Co. in 2006, has revived the automaker by emphasizing quality and expanding its lineup with small cars such as the Focus and Fiesta, which gets 40 mpg on the highway.
Ford earned $9.28 billion in the last two years after $30.1 billion in losses from 2006 through 2008. As a reward for the turnaround, Ford on March 3 paid Mulally unrestricted stock worth $56.5 million and gave Executive Chairman Bill Ford unrestricted shares valued at $42.4 million.
Ford withheld some of the stock awards to cover their income taxes. After taxes, Mulally received $33.4 million and Bill Ford got $25.1 million. Fields received stock awards valued at $4.66 million on March 3 and March 5 under the company's long-term incentive plan.
After Ford withheld some shares to cover income taxes, Fields received $2.76 million.