The ongoing launch of Ford Motor Co.’s Edge just got a shot in the arm, as the cross/utility vehicle earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s “Top Safety Pick” rating.

The new CUV is the first vehicle to benefit from Ford’s strategy to offer roll stability control and advanced crash protection systems across its lineup, the auto maker says. The safety initiative also has the added benefit of driving sales.

“The Insurance Institute’s tests are some of the most demanding conducted outside of our own laboratories, and customer are increasingly relying on them when choosing a new vehicle,” says Sue Cichke, vice president-environmental and safety engineering.

To qualify as a Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must earn good ratings in IIHS’ high-speed front and side crash tests and in evaluations of seats and head restraints.

In 2007, a requirement was added that vehicles must offer electronic safety control, an option now standard on most Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

By the end of 2009, all vehicles in the Ford stable will feature ESC as standard, the auto maker says.

Meanwhile, the launch of the Edge is going well on other fronts. In January, the first full month of sales, Ford dealers moved 5,586 units, more than the 4,078 Fusions sold in its first full month on sale in October 2005.

The successful debut is exactly what Ford needed, as the Edge is arguably one of the most important new vehicles in the auto maker’s 103-year history.

Early on it appeared the Edge was destined for problems.

Ford began Job One of the Edge and its Lincoln MKX sister at the Oakville, ON, Canada, assembly plant in October, but initial units were held back when the auto maker decided in November to delay delivery to dealers.

At the time, Ford said the holdup was to ensure proper assembly procedures, but rumors of quality and supplier issues surfaced. Ford subsequently replaced Oakville’s plant manager but insisted the move was routine and had nothing to do with hiccups in the launch.

Following the slight delay, shipments to dealers began late last year.

Cisco Codina, Ford group vice president-North America marketing, sales and service, says 20% of Ford dealers still have not received Edges, due in part to inclement weather in some parts of the country. However, all dealers are expected to get their allotment by the end of this week, he says.

The units that have arrived at dealerships don’t stay there long, Codina tells Ward’s.

“Edge is selling quickly out of the gate,” Codina says. “They (units) are sitting on dealership lots less than 10 days.”

Several dealers contacted by Ward’s agree, saying the early response to the Edge has been strong.

“My sales consultants are all tripping over each other to get their customers in to drive one,” says Annette Sykora, dealer principal of Smith Ford Mercury in Slaton, TX, and Smith South Plains Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep in Levelland, TX. “My early impression is we have a winner.”

Some dealers are banking on the Edge being the vehicle that helps Ford out of its current slump. The auto maker has been hemorrhaging red ink, reporting a massive $12.7 billion loss in 2006.

“We just hope it follows in the footsteps of the Fusion with good grades on looks, handling, performance, and no warranty issues,” says John Sinclair, general manager of Dave Sinclair Ford in St. Louis. “In this torn-up market, a few car lines with those attributes could get us smiling again.”

As with most new-model launches, early Edge sales have been mostly high-end models with most available options, says Jeri Ward, marketing manager-Ford Edge.

“Things are going very well in terms of the initial interest for well-equipped vehicles, if you will. That’s pretty typical,” she says. “A lot of dealers (like to) put the high-dollar vehicles in their showrooms.”

Ward declines to reveal the cost of the Edge marketing campaign, which includes online, print and television elements, but she does say “it is the largest digital launch ever undertaken here at Ford.”

Ford also has worked with its various advertising agencies to develop Edge campaigns aimed at specific ethnicities, including Hispanics and African-Americans, Ward says.

bpope@wardsauto.com