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Ford leans on global Mustang to burnish overseas image

By Deepa Seetharaman and Samuel Shen

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

The second-largest U.S. automaker is betting that upscale touches will appeal to buyers in Europe and Asia, where the pony car will be sold for the first time in 2015. The new model features the trapezoid front grille that Ford has used to lend a more premium look its other global models.

"This was a chance to bring Mustang and actually lift the rest of the brand up with it," Ford's global design chief J Mays said on Thursday. The design change "helps us tie this car to the 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 an outsized effect on shaping the perceptions of Ford worldwide, Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields said.

Fields, Chief Executive Alan Mulally and other top Ford executives 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 next fall. It will be sold in Europe in the first half of 2015 and in Asia in the second half.

The global Mustang comes as Ford seeks to build its brand outside North America. Dave Schoch, head of Ford's Asia-Pacific operations, said the Mustang would "enhance" the Ford brand in China, where the company is starting to gain ground after a slow start.

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

"When you work on an icon of the company, it's a mixture of tremendous pride and honor and a little bit of angst because there's a lot of responsibility," said Fields, who is widely expected 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" tail lights, a trademark feature since the 1960s.

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

The new Mustang sits about 1.5 inches lower than the outgoing model, said Mays, who will retire from Ford on January 1. It has a new suspension system and will be offered with three powertrain 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 from auto critics.

"If I were planning the next Mustang today, I'd try to recreate a low-priced sports car that was more exciting than the Focus 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 gasoline is close to 10 bucks a gallon," he said.

The original Mustang was introduced at the New York World's Fair on April 17, 1964, to attract young Americans. Fields, then 3 years old, attended the event with his parents, he said.

The Mustang was the inspiration for the R&B song "Mustang Sally," which was popular in the mid-1960s, and has been featured 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 an audience abroad. But speaking to reporters in Shanghai, Schoch brushed aside those concerns.

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

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

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles and Paul Lienert in Detroit, editing by Elizabeth Piper and Richard Chang)

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