Ford leans on global Mustang to burnish overseas image

Reuters

By Deepa Seetharaman and Samuel Shen

DEARBORN, Mich./SHANGHAI, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co unveiled its 50th anniversary Mustang sports car in itsfirst global launch on Thursday, with a sleek redesign aimed atenhancing the brand's status outside the United States.

The second-largest U.S. automaker is betting that upscaletouches will appeal to buyers in Europe and Asia, where the ponycar will be sold for the first time in 2015. The new modelfeatures the trapezoid front grille that Ford has used to lend amore premium look its other global models.

"This was a chance to bring Mustang and actually lift therest of the brand up with it," Ford's global design chief J Mayssaid on Thursday. The design change "helps us tie this car tothe rest of the vehicles that we sell," he added.

The Mustang accounted for just 3 percent of Ford's U.S.sales during the first 11 months of the year, but it has anoutsized effect on shaping the perceptions of Ford worldwide,Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields said.

Fields, Chief Executive Alan Mulally and other top Fordexecutives unveiled the Mustang in six cities: Dearborn,Michigan, Shanghai, Sydney, Barcelona, New York and Los Angeles.

The 2015 Mustang will go on sale in the United States nextfall. It will be sold in Europe in the first half of 2015 and inAsia in the second half.

The global Mustang comes as Ford seeks to build its brandoutside North America. Dave Schoch, head of Ford's Asia-Pacificoperations, said the Mustang would "enhance" the Ford brand inChina, where the company is starting to gain ground after a slowstart.

A new influx of buyers could also help Ford increase salesof its other high-performance and high-margin models, such asthe Focus ST, in Europe, analysts said.

"When you work on an icon of the company, it's a mixture oftremendous pride and honor and a little bit of angst becausethere's a lot of responsibility," said Fields, who is widelyexpected to succeed Mulally as CEO in the future.

NO MORE HOCKEY STICK

Mays said designers were careful not to water down the"American-ness" of the Mustang in crafting the car's new look.For example, the new Mustang will retain the "tri-bar" taillights, a trademark feature since the 1960s.

But designers also eliminated the traditional "fake scoops,"or cutouts, on Mustang's sides. Also gone is the hockeystick-like graphic on the lower section of the doors.

The new Mustang sits about 1.5 inches lower than theoutgoing model, said Mays, who will retire from Ford on Jan. 1.It has a new suspension system and will be offered with threepowertrain options, including a 2.3 liter turbocharged engine.

But the Mustang's new look could alienate some enthusiasts.Leaked images of the car this week drew mixed responses fromauto critics.

"If I were planning the next Mustang today, I'd try torecreate a low-priced sports car that was more exciting than theFocus and would appeal to younger buyers," said Hal Sperlich,the chief architect of the original Ford Mustang.

"I'm not sure this will sell well in Europe, where gasolineis close to 10 bucks a gallon," he said.

The original Mustang was introduced at the New York World'sFair on April 17, 1964, to attract young Americans. Fields, then3 years old, attended the event with his parents, he said.

The Mustang was the inspiration for the R&B song "MustangSally," which was popular in the mid-1960s, and has beenfeatured in Hollywood movies. Steve McQueen, for instance,famously drove a dark green Mustang in the 1968 film "Bullitt."

American sports cars have typically struggled to gain anaudience abroad. But speaking to reporters in Shanghai, Schochbrushed aside those concerns.

"I used to think the same thing, but when you go out andtalk to customers, and the answer (question?) is: why don't youbring the Mustang?" he told reporters in Shanghai.

"As we get greater awareness of the product in China, Ibelieve more people will come into our show room," he said."It's going to be a big drawing factor of getting people in."

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