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At Joseph's Toyota on the west side of Cincinnati, Tony Meyer hands over the keys to 30 or 40 new Corolla owners every month. Just north of downtown at Superior Honda, Chris Hack figures 30 people drive off the lot in new Civics each month.

So Bob Ring, who sells about 16 Focus compacts a month at Kings Ford Inc. in northeast Cincinnati, knows what he's up against when the redesigned version of the car arrives at his dealership early next year to take on the No. 1 and No. 2 cars in the compact segment.

"We're expecting it to do big things," Mr. Ring says.

A couple of hours drive north along Interstate 75 at the Glass House, the nickname for the global headquarters of Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., the company's senior executives have similar expectations. That means, for a small car, the Focus is carrying a lot of cargo.

The redesigned Focus is Ford's comeback attempt in a market segment that the Detroit Three all but surrendered to Japan-based auto makers in the 1990s.

It's a high-stakes roll of the dice that U.S. consumers will trade gas guzzlers for compacts, and that Detroit's second-largest auto maker can make profits selling small cars.

The Focus is also the first vehicle developed under the "One Ford" transformation of the company that chief executive officer Alan Mulally began putting in place when he arrived in 2006.

"We've been literally right out of the car business for a whole generation," Mr. Mulally said Tuesday as the company unveiled a $550-million (U.S.) revamp of the assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., that will assemble the redesigned Focus. "We didn't have a full product line because we really focused on the SUVs and the trucks."

To underline the scope of Ford's transformation under Mr. Mulally, the new Focus will be assembled at a plant in suburban Detroit that was among the most profitable auto factories in the world in the 1990s and 2000s when it was turning out giant Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators. Those SUVs helped generate billions of dollars in profits for Ford, at a time when a gallon of gas cost less than a bottle of water.

The rebuilt Michigan plant will also make an electric version of the Focus next year and hybrid and plug-in hybrid Ford vehicles in 2012, further demonstrating Ford's view that greener vehicles will sell.

Ford is still selling Expeditions and Navigator sport utility vehicles, but it's making them in Kentucky. The Michigan Truck Plant is now the Michigan Assembly Plant.

Among the changes at the plant are a new paint shop that will use 66 robots - the first robots to be used in this plant's paint shop - to apply primer, base coat and a final coat to auto bodies without drying them in between coats, reducing power use because they will spend less time drying in paint ovens.

When Michigan Truck cranked out 299,251 Expeditions and Navigators in 1999, Ford racked up a profit of $7.2-billion (U.S.). When output plunged to 67,669 vehicles in 2008, Ford lost $14.8-billion.

The announcement that Ford was halting production of the behemoths and gutting the plant to install a passenger car assembly line came on July 24, 2008, one week after the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline hit a record $4.11 in the United States. That was already a crisis for Ford, General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC, which had relied for more than a decade on trucks and SUVs, but it was dwarfed by the liquidity crisis that threw the industry into complete turmoil just two months later.

"We've taken a point of view that the market will shift toward more fuel-efficient vehicles - more car-based vehicles," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, told The Globe and Mail in Toronto last month. "We have invested our product plan accordingly."

Some of that shift will be forced upon North American drivers, in part because of new, more stringent emission regulations from the U.S. and Canadian governments. One way to reduce emissions is to shrink vehicles so they use less gas.

But the price of gas will be a key determining factor in whether Americans in particular will gravitate to smaller cars - and in numbers large enough to justify the billions of dollars the Detroit auto makers are investing. In addition to the Focus in the compact segment, GM is already selling the new Chevrolet Cruze. Chrysler's bid to re-energize its small car offerings starts with a subcompact, the Fiat 500, which is the first fruit of the Fiat SpA takeover of Chrysler.

GM is also making a bold move in an even smaller segment, by building subcompact cars in the U.S. A plant in Orion, Mich., that had been assembling mid-sized cars will start making subcompacts. The Chevrolet Sonic will be the first subcompact car built in the United States or Canada since GM and Suzuki Motor Co. Ltd. built them in the 1990s at what was then a joint venture between the two companies in Ingersoll, Ont.

Mr. Ring, Mr. Meyer and Mr. Hack are watching the price of gas closely in Cincinnati. Passenger cars already dominate Ohio, making up about 60 per cent of the light vehicles on the road.

In Canada, a similar opportunity for Ford presents itself in Quebec, where the Focus ranked fifth in the compact segment in 2009 behind Civic, Mazda3, Corolla and the Hyundai Elantra. Quebeckers bought almost 135,000 compact cars last year or more than one-third of all compact cars bought in Canada.

The magic number for when the price of gas sends Americans back to cars or to compacts from mid-sized cars seems to be $3 a gallon, said Mr. Ring, who noted that a gallon of regular in the Cincinnati area was fetching $2.95 last week.

"The last time we had a run on cars and trucks kind of fell down, it got to $3.20. That's when consumers started saying 'I'm thinking about getting a truck, but I think I'll buy a car,' " he said.

Whether the new Focus will be able to claw back some of the market share that Honda, Toyota and other offshore companies grabbed depends in part on how it's priced, which will be a function of how much Ford has been able to reduce its costs.

Some of the cost cuts are well known - the shutting of dozens of factories, the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs and hourly labour costs slashed by $25 an hour or more to about $50.

Underneath the hood is the One Ford strategy. The Focus comes off what is known as a global platform, with about 80 per cent of the parts common on vehicles sold in North America, Europe and Asia.

It will eventually provide the base for 10 different vehicle styles that Mr. Fields believes will sell two million units. Before the One Ford strategy was put in place, each region would design and build such a model individually.

"You can see the efficiencies that we gain, not only in engineering because we just have to design it once, one die, maybe two dies … just the efficiencies and economies of scale in buying parts," he said.

No matter how the Focus is priced, however, it won't generate the $10,000 to $15,000 apiece in gross profit that the Expedition and Navigator did for Ford in the heyday of the Michigan Truck Plant.

Each Focus might generate gross profit of $2,000, said industry analyst Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J. That is, Mr. Phillippi acknowledged, a better scenario than the losses compact cars generated for the Detroit Three a decade ago.

"You're selling units and you've got a competitive product, but the glory days are gone," he said. "It's the new reality."

Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said the subcompact Ford Fiesta and the mid-sized Taurus provide examples of a new pricing strategy at Ford that should help generate profits on the passenger car side of the business.

Ford offers four levels of trim on the Fiesta and Taurus. The base Fiesta carries a manufacturers suggested retail price of $13,320 in the U.S. market, while the SES hatchback version, fully loaded with leather seats, for example, is priced at $19,700 and is more profitable.

Mr. Fields said the average transaction price on the Fiesta is more than $17,000 and the number of people opting for leather seats is higher than Ford thought it would be.

Consumers "have been willing to trade down in size, they don't want to trade down in terms of option availability," he said.

"We really want to make sure that consumers are willing to pay - see the value in the product - and not just give them a cheap and cheerful car, give them a car that they'll see value."

There is one school of thought that the U.S. market is already undergoing a structural shift to smaller vehicles.

Industry analyst Alan Baum, who heads Baum and Associates, believes the Great Recession has created a permanently higher level of unemployment in the United States.

That creates enough fear and uncertainty that people will want to cut their monthly car payments.

Those payments now compete with cellphone, Internet and cable television bills that demand a growing slice of a family's monthly disposable income.

"For younger families, these monthly services actually exceed their median car payments," Mr. Baum noted.

Count Mr. Phillippi, however, as one analyst who is skeptical that Americans will embrace compacts.

"Americans aren't getting any smaller," he said. "I can't believe the number of different things that I see that are made extra-wide, whether it's wheelchairs, easy chairs for your living room, polo shirts. Most people don't want to drive one of these things unless they absolutely have to either from an affordability standpoint or from a fuel economy standpoint."