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Ford executive chairman William Clay Ford unveils a new electrified 2011 Ford Focus Monday in Detroit.

Scott Olson/2011 Getty Images

From the auto maker scorned a decade ago by environmentalists for producing the mammoth, gas-guzzling Excursion SUV, Ford is now striving to become the world's greenest auto maker.

"We believe the price of gas will go up," company chairman Bill Ford said Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "We've built our entire strategy around that," Mr. Ford told reporters after the company unveiled its first plug-in hybrid vehicle and showed off a battery-powered Focus compact car that was introduced last week in Las Vegas.

The new electric vehicles are a far cry from the days of the Excursion, which was dubbed by the Sierra Club as the Ford Valdez, after the Exxon Valdez tanker, which spilled oil off Alaska in 1989 in one of North America's worst environmental disasters.

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"I love the fact that we're now signalling our intent on fuel economy across the board," Mr. Ford said.

The plug-in hybrid, called the Ford C-Max Energi, will be built off the same platform or basic underbody as the Focus, and which will eventually produce 10 different vehicles with production volume of two million annually.

There's also a hybrid version of the C-Max. The Focus and the C-Max models will be assembled at the company's plant in Wayne, Mich., which once churned out Ford's other one-time profit kings, the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs.

Producing the electric and hybrid vehicles on the Focus platform will allow Ford to bring down the costs of electric vehicles more quickly than other auto makers, Mr. Ford said.

The auto maker is not identifying a date by which Ford's plug-in electric and battery-powered vehicles are expected to generate profits, he said.

The company won an endorsement on Monday from actor and noted environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., who as of last month was driving a Toyota Prius, according to his website.

"Ford gets it," Mr. Begley said in a video played during the introduction of the new vehicles.

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Ford also announced it will hire 7,000 new hourly employees and 750 salaried employees this year in the United States. As many as 50 salaried employees could be added at Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. The company has about 700 salaried employees in Canada.

The battle for environmental leadership is far from a one-horse race. Among the large auto makers, that mantle is claimed by Toyota , with the Prius and hybrid electric versions of several of its best-selling vehicles. Toyota took the wraps off the new vehicle for the Prius family Monday at the show.

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