BANGKOK – Ford Thailand says it has sold half of its first shipment of Territory SUVs from Australia, about on par with expectations.

Imported completely built-up and subject to tariffs that add to its price, the auto maker is looking to carve out a market niche above locally built, cheaper rivals such as Toyota’s Fortuner and Chevrolet’s Colorado.

Volumes will be low, but the Territory more importantly is symbolic of a potential realignment of the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which has seen far more vehicles shipped from Thailand to Australia than the other way around.

The Territory first was shown in March at the Bangkok International Motor Show to gauge customer reaction, which proved positive, says Yukontorn Wisadkosin, vice president-marketing, sales and service for Ford Thailand.

“The response to the all-new Ford Territory so far has been very encouraging,” she says. “The reason we decided to officially launch this premium SUV in Thailand was based on the… feedback we received following its preview.”

Ford drew a similar response from consumers at December’s Motor Expo, where the auto maker began taking orders.

The initial batch of 100 vehicles arrived from Australia last summer, and Wisadkosin says about half of the first shipment has been sold. She also believes the Thai-Australian FTA “is working fine” and that is leading to pricing that is both “competitive (and) attractive.”

There is talk of an additional allotment this year, but Wisadkosin remains cautious. “Any future shipments will be based on customer demand,” she says.

For Ford Australia, exporting even small quantities of the Territory is a symbolic shot in the arm.

Previously, Ford struggled to match the powertrains of its large SUVs to Thai market demand, but the Territory will come with the fuel-efficient 2.7L TDCi V-6 diesel engine that arrived under the hood in 2011 and has improved demand for the vehicle in Australia.

The SUV is being sold here in the top Titanium trim level that includes a high level of active and passive safety features, and has the potential to tap into a fast-growing segment.

“As consumer preferences have continued to evolve in Thailand, (the Territory) will help meet growing demand in the premium-SUV segment,” Wisadkosin believes.

Wisadkosin sees the Territory as part of Ford Thailand’s wider strategy: “Our goal is to continue offering segment-leading vehicles that consumers want and value, and we are confident (it) will help us deliver on this.”

Pitching to a less price-sensitive niche, she believes the Territory has all the attributes to make it stand out.

“(It) offers a unique selling proposition, with best-in-class value that includes its modern luxurious design, a leading safety package that helped it earn a 5-star crash-performance rating, superior driving quality, in-car entertainment system and all-wheel-drive capability,” she says. “(The Territory) delivers the versatility of a SUV with car-like dynamics.”

But Ford Thailand is quick to dismiss the notion other high-end luxury vehicles from Australia could be imported in low volumes in the near future. “Our current plans involve importing (only) the Territory from Australia,” Wisadkosin says.

The Territory also will provide Ford Thailand with a quick-fix halo vehicle for its lineup and a competitor for Chevrolet’s new Trailblazer, which has proved to be an instant hit with consumers in a segment long-dominated by the Fortuner.

Both Ford and General Motors are putting significant resources into the Thai market, but GM has powered ahead in sales in 2012, thanks in part to the new Colorado pickup that is outselling the new Ford Ranger 2:1.

But Ford’s new Focus is enjoying increased demand. Coupled with a very robust year for its key Fiesta model, Ford Thailand 2012 vehicle sales climbed 76.2% to 47,655 units through November.