Ford is not concerned about the recent slowdown in China’s light-vehicle sales, anticipating the market could pace as high as 10% in the coming years.

“Last year, the market in China grew 32%; that’s not a sustainable level of growth you’re going to see forever,” Joe Hinrichs, president-Ford Asia Pacific and Africa, tells WardsAuto in an interview.

Ford in December predicted China’s 2011 car sales would gain 5% to 10% on year-ago, but now expects that figure to be closer to 5%.

China’s fast-paced economy has been hampered this year in part by the central government’s efforts to rein in inflation, the Ford executive says. But its vehicle market remains the world’s largest, with an 18 million-unit seasonally adjusted annual rate.

“The passenger-car business has held up well, but the commercial-vehicle business has declined more sharply due to credit availability and government control of inflation,” Hinrichs says. “But China is continuing to grow and will be an attractive market for new products.”

September Ford-brand wholesale car deliveries in China jumped 40%, compared with year-ago, to 28,669 units, the auto maker says. Ford’s total year-to-date wholesale results rose 10% to 385,957, compared with prior-year’s first three quarters.

The auto maker is betting big on the market, with plans to build two vehicle plants in the country – one in Chongqing with its Changan Ford Mazda joint-venture and a second in Nanchang with partner Jiangling.

CFMA recently inked a memorandum of understanding for a new $500 million engine plant in Chongqing, as well. The additional capacity is needed to realize Ford’s plans to expand its Chinese offerings from five models today to 15 by 2015.

Hinrichs says in a statement the new products will be high-quality, safe, fuel-efficient and with smart technologies that Chinese consumers want and value.

But he tells WardsAuto the coming lineup also will be less-expensive, noting 30% of the market in China is controlled by vehicles costing $14,500 or less.

He is tightlipped on product-introduction plans or whether Ford will launch region-specific nameplates. Some foreign auto makers in China already have introduced new entry-level brands with their JV partners aimed at the interior cities.

“We are very consistent with our global plan on having global names, such as Fiesta, Focus, Kuga, Mondeo, etc.,” Hinrichs says. “Will there be specific vehicles or top hats off global platforms for Asia/Pacific? Wait and see.”

To handle the planned increase in vehicle production, Ford will double the size of its workforce in China by 2015, adding 1,200 new jobs.

Hiring will be across functions, including engineering, manufacturing, marketing, sales and service, information technology, communications and government affairs. The new jobs will be located at Ford operations in Shanghai, Chongqing, Nanjing and Nanchang.

Hinrichs says Ford is aware that traditionally low labor rates in China have begun to edge up, but insists it is not affecting the auto maker’s hiring plans. “Labor rates are rising, but not outside the realm of what we can manage.”

The supply base also must be ramped up. Right now it is sufficient, but more must be done to accommodate the coming capacity expansion. “We’re still working with suppliers to have the capacity in the right place to support us,” he says. “We have systematic growth plans, and we want to make sure the supply base grows at the same rate.”

Ford is enjoying some success in China with products imported from North America, including the Edge cross/utility vehicle, which is built at the auto maker’s Oakville, ON, Canada, assembly plant.

“We launched the Edge as an import and, we’re selling all we can get,” Hinrichs says. “(Right now), we’re not importing that many Edges (in China), less than 10,000. But we’d like to ramp it up. That’s the plan.”

The Chinese government is pushing electric vehicles in an effort to become a leader in the emerging technology. Hinrichs doesn’t divulge Ford’s plan to join the segment but notes the auto maker currently has a test fleet of electrified vehicles in operation in the country.

If a business case presents itself in China, the auto maker believes it is well-positioned to take advantage, with plans already in place to introduce five new EVs in North America and Europe by 2013.

“We’re working with the (Chinese) government on policies and with our partners,” Hinrichs says. “We’re putting new build technologies in our new plants, so we’ll have the capability (to produce EVs). But right now, we’re still studying policies and haven’t announced (our) plans.”

Ford also is considering bringing luxury vehicles to China. In addition to the fast-paced C-segment, in which the auto maker offers the Ford Focus, sales of luxury vehicles are booming.

As with electrified vehicles, adding its Lincoln products is all about timing, he says.

“Ford is considered a strong international brand, but not luxury,” Hinrichs says. “We’re focused on the Ford brand, and we continue to study (the luxury segment). Lincoln may present an opportunity, but it’s not in the plan.”

Among the other markets he oversees, Hinrichs is most enthused about opportunities in Thailand and India.

Ford’s sales in India surged 35% through September compared with year-ago, despite an overall slowdown in the light-vehicle market. Thailand continues to be a strong pickup truck market for Ford, and the introduction of the new small Ranger represents new growth opportunities, he says.

“Throughout the (Asian) region, we have seven new plants under construction, four in China, one in India and three in Thailand,” Hinrich’s says. “It’s an exciting growth period.”

bpope@wardsauto.com