Ford heads into 2012 riding a wave of momentum in the U.S.

Sales are up 10.6% through October, and the auto maker’s home market is credited with playing an instrumental role in Ford’s financial turnaround, contributing $1.6 billion in pretax profits in the third quarter.

Some headwinds persist as 2012 approaches, including chronically low consumer confidence and a sluggish economy.

But Mark Fields, president-The Americas, remains optimistic, pointing to some key product launches, including an all-important redesign of the Escape cross/utility vehicle that could help keep things rolling for the auto maker in the U.S.

He discusses his 2012 outlook with WardsAuto in an interview conducted via email.

WardsAuto: Has the economic recovery taken hold, or do you fear the U.S. is headed for a double-dip recession?

Fields: We are seeing signs of growth in the U.S. market. It’s moderate growth, ramping up more slowly than any of us would like or, in fact, expected earlier this year. But it is growth, and it leads us to believe that the U.S. economy remains in recovery mode.

WardsAuto: What do you expect to be the next game-changer in vehicle technology?

Fields: Technology that allows people to stay connected to their digital lives will define automotive leaders in the next few years.

Across the industry, so many companies are delivering great technologies that improve fuel economy and make the driving experience better and safer for customers. The real point of differentiation is in infotainment technologies, and Ford intends to remain a leader in this space.

WardsAuto: Other than the economy, what is the biggest single threat to your business? In other words, what keeps you awake at night?

Fields: Consumer confidence. It is so important that the American public grows its faith in the fundamentals of the economy and the performance of top businesses here.

When people are confident about the state of the economy and the likelihood that they will have – and keep – their jobs, they are far more inclined to buy new products, including vehicles.

WardsAuto: How do you see the vehicle-segment mix changing in the U.S. in 2012? How will your business be impacted?

Fields: The vehicle-segment mix in 2012 likely will closely resemble what we have been seeing this year.

If there’s any shift, it would be further growth in cars – especially small cars – and utilities. Both are increasing fuel efficiency, and we know that matters to customers.

People are still telling us fuel economy is among their top reasons that influence what they shop for and buy. For the first time, we’re even hearing that among sports-car buyers.

For Ford, this is good news. We have invested billions in new vehicles and powertrains, aiming to deliver vehicles that deliver the best or among the best fuel economy when they come to market, no matter the segment.

WardsAuto: Which one of your 2012 vehicle launches do you think will have the greatest impact on your business, and why?

Fields: The new products in the middle of the market – our new Fusion and Escape – are really critical.

Two out of three auto shoppers in America will look at products in both of the midsize-car and small-utility segments next year. The competition is fierce. New products are expected from our major competitors next year, and the volumes at stake are high.

These segments represent 4.1 million vehicles annually, three times the fullsize pickup segment. The opportunity is significant.

WardsAuto: What is Ford’s greatest strength going into 2012 and what do you feel you have to improve upon?

Fields: Ford’s greatest strength remains our laser-focus on delivering our plan. No matter what the external environment throws at us, we will work together and find a way to deliver on our plan and adapt to conditions real-time, delivering vehicles with top quality, fuel economy, safety and smart technology.

Our greatest opportunity is to ensure that we continue delivering vehicles with leading quality. Our customer feedback now shows that we are largely back on track after we addressed near-term quality issues with MyFord Touch and a few of our powertrains.

And we remain absolutely committed to using all customer feedback to continuously improve our vehicles and restore our third-party quality rankings.

WardsAuto: Is all the hype surrounding electrified vehicles justified, or will they remain niche products?

Fields: Electrification represents an important choice for people.

Ford is introducing five electrified vehicles in North America by the end of next year. The Ford Transit Connect Electric small commercial van is now on sale. Focus Electric begins production later this year. Next year, the new Ford C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid go on sale, along with another next-generation, lithium-ion hybrid vehicle.

Electrified vehicles are an important option for people, but likely not the highest-volume one. Ultimately, though, Ford is all about giving customers the power of choice – including fuel-efficient gas engines – such as EcoBoost, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full battery-electric vehicles.

Ford will offer them all, allowing customers to decide which fuel-efficient vehicle best meets their needs, not asking them to settle for a one-size-fits-all solution.

bpope@wardsauto.com