SANTA MONICA, CA – Despite high gas prices nationwide, car buyers still rank exterior design as their No.1 purchase consideration, a top Ford executive says.

Raj Nair, vice president of engineering-global product development, says that gives the auto maker high hopes for its all-new ’13 Ford Fusion midsize sedan, which has been lauded for its striking sheetmetal.

“Fusion is a transformational vehicle relative to our design language, so the language you see on it is something you’re going to see on a lot on future Fords,” he tells WardsAuto at a backgrounder here.

Unlike the previous styling philosophy, dubbed kinetic design, Ford has not labeled its new design language. The auto maker is referring to it simply as its global design language, Nair says.

The Fusion’s styling represents a dramatic departure from that of the outgoing model.

“We had the discussion that we really wanted leadership in design,” Nair says. “It’s a bold, emotive exterior design, and we knew people would fall in love with the exterior. You live with the interior, but you fall in love with the exterior first.”

The new styling will heighten perceived value for Fusion shoppers, Nair predicts.

In one workshop, consumers were shown the Fusion without a Blue Oval badge alongside other unmarked competitors and asked to put a price tag on the vehicles.

“When they guessed the price, they thought the vehicle (cost) $10,000 more than the list price,” Nair says, noting the Fusion fared better in that regard than any previous Ford tested.

“We had similar results in China and Europe, so we think we’ve got something globally appealing,” he says. “Although it’s a mainstream vehicle and it’s fighting in the (midsize) segment, we wanted it to exude an aura of premium-ness.”

Ford plans to sell the Mondeo, a Fusion twin, in Europe and other international markets.

The auto maker says five elements provided direction for the Fusion design team: silhouette innovation, perceived efficiency, refined surface language, technical graphics and a new front fascia that will migrate to other Ford vehicles.

The Fusion’s trapezoidal grille also will adorn the refreshed Fiesta B-car. Some critics say the grille is too similar to that used by British sports car maker Aston Martin, which Ford owned from 1994 to 2007.

But Nair says copying Aston Martin was never Ford’s intention.

“We’re proud of our ownership of Aston Martin and the products that came out during our stewardship,” he says. “But the design really has nothing to do with that period or what we’re doing right now.”

With quality improving among all auto makers, design has become the great differentiator, says Mark West, transportation design chair at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

He says the midsize sedan segment is full of “bread-and-butter” cars, because designers are tasked with creating a vehicle that appeals to a large group of potential buyers.

“So they end up with pretty bland cars, because it’s the lowest-common-denominator design that satisfies all those tastes,” West tells WardsAuto. “But once you water them down they look alike, and consumers want something distinct. I think that’s what Ford has with (the) Fusion.”

He points to Hyundai and Kia as examples of how style can help set a vehicle apart from the pack. Models such as the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima have been heralded for their groundbreaking design.

The same can be said for the design of the new Fusion, West says, noting it has a European flair that U.S. consumers will embrace.

“Designers don’t have an excuse not to be aggressive and creative with C/D (size) sedans,” he says. “Ford is developing one vehicle for the global market, and for them to get it right like they did with this car is quite impressive.”

bpope@wardsauto.com