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Chief Executive Alan Mulally is hoping to revive Ford Motor Co. by bringing European small cars to the U.S. market. His success may hinge in large part on a mundane component: the front bumper.

The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker reported a second-quarter loss of $8.7 billion, and is scrambling to adapt to this year's steep rise in gasoline prices. The run-up produced a sudden shift in consumer demand toward more fuel-efficient small cars and away from the trucks and sport-utility vehicles that generate most of the company's revenue in North America.

In July, Mr. Mulally announced a crash effort to retool three of Ford's North American truck plants so they can build at least six vehicles Ford now makes and sells in Europe. The company plans to spend $3 billion on that effort.

Ford's strategy may be trickier to pull off than it sounds. To make European cars comply with U.S. safety regulations and insurance standards, Ford will have to add some potentially costly parts and steel reinforcements. If the work isn't done efficiently, the vehicles could become too expensive for Ford to make money on them, or too heavy to deliver the kind of gas-mileage Americans now crave.

Bumpers present one of the biggest hurdles on the safety front. European regulations require auto makers to design bumpers that cause minimal injury to pedestrians. U.S. bumpers need to be much heavier to withstand direct impacts and front-end collisions against a solid barrier or a large vehicle like a truck or SUV.

Regardless of such challenges, Ford's rush to tailor its European cars for the U.S. market "is about our survival," according to Jim Farley, Ford's global sales and marketing vice president, who was in Europe last week for the launch preview of the newly designed Ford Fiesta subcompact. Originally intended for Europe and Asia, the Fiesta has been reworked for North America and is scheduled to arrive in dealer showrooms in the U.S. in the first half of 2010.

On a visit to a Ford test track in Lommel, Belgium, Mr. Farley said he believes that marketing the Fiesta world-wide will help Ford's bottom line. "The key is that we'll be able to sell these cars in great volume on a global scale," he said.

Still, Ford may face an uphill battle in selling Americans on small cars designed for Europe. Ford, as with Detroit rivals General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, has a strong reputation with truck buyers, but it may have trouble winning small-car business away from such specialists as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Moreover, if gasoline prices continue to fall, as they have in recent weeks, consumer demand for small cars could ease, making it harder for Ford to sell of them to make the business profitable.

Even if Ford's European models take off in the U.S., it isn't clear how much profit they might generate. A car maker's profit margin on cars can be just a few hundred dollars, and Detroit's Big Three have often lost money on their small-car sales.

Moreover, any profit on small cars would be unlikely to offset the impact of declining truck sales. Each full-size pickup and SUV Detroit sells generally generates a pretax profit of about $8,000.

Mr. Farley said he believes that customers who are used to buying larger vehicles are now willing to pay extra to get good-looking small cars loaded with optional features. If that's the case, it would augur well for Ford's plans to produce models like the Fiesta for the North American market, as well as a new version of the Focus compact, the smallest car it now offers in the U.S.

Ford has tried in the past to bring European cars to the U.S., with limited success, often because the vehicles were stripped down to cut costs. In the 1980s, the Mercury Merkur, a sports car Ford made in Germany, failed to take off. Years later, Ford spent billions to introduce the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, both based on European designs. But they were beset by early recalls, competition from Ford's own Taurus sedan and tepid reviews.

"We didn't spend any time to find out the unique needs of the American market," said Andreas Ostendorf, Ford's chief vehicle engineer in Europe, who worked on the Contour program.

Ford is beginning to develop new cars from the ground up to be built and sold anywhere in the world. But for now, rising gasoline prices have left Ford few other options but to modify European models for the U.S. market. With Americans flocking to cars as opposed to trucks and SUVs, Ford's U.S. vehicle sales are down 15% this year, and sales of its bread-and-butter F-150 pickup truck are off 20%.

Steve Kozak, one of Ford's top safety engineers, said the company is now designing new American bumpers for the European compacts and midsize models Ford aims to start assembling in North American plants next year. It is the single most expensive adaptation, he said.

"There is far more emphasis, especially with insurance companies, on low-speed damage from a frontal collision," said Mr. Kozak, who dispatched a team of safety engineers from Dearborn to Germany 20 months ago to modify European designs to meet American requirements. "You can't find an F-150 [truck] in Europe, so the requirements there don't have those collisions in mind."
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