BANGKOK – The debut of the new ’12 Ford Focus in Thailand this week has extra significance, as it kicks off a new chapter for the U.S. auto maker both here in Southeast Asia’s automotive powerhouse and in the region overall.

The new car will roll out of a brand-new, 13.9 billion baht $450 million factory here, set to supply the whole of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations trading region, as well as other export markets.

And it’s just one step in an ambitious regional program from Ford.

“We have big plans to go further here in Thailand and ASEAN, which is part of our bigger overall plan for the Asia/Pacific and Africa region, where we are planning to introduce over 50 new vehicles and powertrains by the middle of the decade,” Joseph Hinrichs, Ford’s top executive in the region, says at the 33rd Bangkok International Motor Show this week.

Ford initiated its planned 8-model rollout in the ASEAN region by 2015 with the launch of the Fiesta in 2011, and the small car has been a success story so far, enjoying a high-level trim mix and taking a 10% slice of its segment against more established Japanese competition.

“Fiesta began the transformation of Ford in ASEAN,” declares Peter Fleet, the energetic Ford Thailand president, under whose watch the U.S. auto maker is raising its visibility here.

Ford posted an “all-time record 2011 here in Thailand, with sales that grew 114%, making Ford the fastest-growing automotive brand on the market,” he says.

The Fiesta also signified a shift in thinking for Ford’s Thai operation, which is pitching hard for a greater say in the auto maker’s global strategy.

The Fiesta was followed up by the Ranger pickup, which launched late last year after a delay caused by massive flooding here. Ford has delivered 3,000 units in Thailand so far and says it has an additional 10,000 orders to fill.

Both these vehicles come from the existing AutoAlliance Thailand plant, but the new Focus arrives fresh from the Ford Mfg. Thailand (FMT) factory that officially is set to open May 3.

FMT will “strengthen the global-hub status of Thailand” and form the center point of Ford’s “aggressive plans for ASEAN,” Fleet says.

The facility also will be counted on to set new quality standards for Ford in the region and improve buyer perception of the brand in the region.

“Quality will be amongst the highest in the world, fully meeting all our global production requirements,” Fleet tells WardsAuto. Unlike the AutoAlliance joint venture plant, the new factory is totally owned by Ford, he points out, so decision-making is streamlined.

“Quality of pre-production (vehicles) is outstanding,” Fleet says.

Flexibility also is a key advantage of the new facility, which will produce a mix of smaller cars, including, a Fiesta-based cross/utility vehicle in 2013 that will drive Ford into a new segment here.

Fleet says the workforce at the plant is “highly motivated and loyal,” and employees are “keen to learn and hungry for promotion to supervisory level.” Early attrition rates have been low, he notes.

Hinrichs is confident the new Focus will raise the bar here, both for Ford and the segment in general. It is “a true global vehicle never seen before in ASEAN markets,” he says.

Features that stand out in the region include extensive use of high-strength steel, active and passive safety features and Ford’s innovative Sync voice-activated infotainment system.

Both 2- and 4-door models will be offered, with the choice of two gasoline 4-cyl. engines, a 123-hp 1.6L and 168-hp 2.0L. Both can be had with a manual transmission, but the 2.0L also is available with Ford’s PowerShift 6-speed automatic with SelectShift.

There currently are no plans for a diesel for this market.

Ford’s EcoBoost engine will be absent at launch too, but Fleet says the direct-injected, turbocharged powerplant will be offered in the future. “It is inevitable that EcoBoost will be available in more markets.”

The auto maker is taking orders for the car at the show, but no official on-sale date has been released. Fleet says only that “delivery of Focuses to our customers (will start) later on this year.”

Thailand is one of two Asian production hubs for the new Focus.

“In Asia, the Focus will be built in China and Thailand (only),” Hinrichs says, adding that as a top-10 seller, the car is “important (to Ford) in China”

Adds Fleet: “Our ambitions are very high for this car.”

Ford also shows off the Australian-built Territory SUV here to gauge customer interest. Although Thailand has a free-trade agreement with Australia, the Territory still would be hit by steep import duties that would limit volumes. It likely would be positioned as a range-topping halo model and keep the bed warm for future premium-end SUV contenders Ford would build here. That’s a market space rival General Motors currently is working hard to fill.

Regarding Ford’s operation in the Philippines, which now builds only the Escape and has been rumored to be on the chopping block, Hinrichs says, “We are (still) studying our options in the Philippines beyond the Escape, but (there has been) no decision yet.”