DEARBORN, MI – In a nod to the memorable “Pepsi Challenge” ad campaign from years past, Ford Motor Co. launches a new marketing initiative pitting its Ford Fusion midsize sedan against segment rivals the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The Fusion advertising is centered around a ride-and-drive event designed and presented by Car and Driver magazine in which 600 subscribers were invited to the Washington area to conduct side-by-side comparisons of the three vehicles on a closed course.

The test included the similarly priced ’07 Honda Accord EX-L V-6, Toyota Camry XLE V-6 and Ford Fusion SEL AWD V-6.

The Camry and Accord handily beat the Fusion when consumers were asked to give their initial impressions of the three cars and their brands.

But following the test drive, consumers’ attitudes changed dramatically, Randy Ortiz, general manager-Ford and Lincoln Mercury Sales, says.

“What we saw was amazing. There’s a huge gap between perception and reality,” Ortiz tells Ward’s. “After driving the Camry and Accord, people walked away and said, ‘That wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be.’”

Once testing was concluded, consumers were asked to rate the vehicles in a variety of areas, including styling, handling, fun to drive and performance.

The Fusion emerged as the winner in most categories. However, Ortiz admits Ford still ranked lower than Toyota and Honda in the popularity and quality categories.

“(The brand) didn’t do well with people’s perception of quality,” he admits.

Changing buyer attitudes is key as the struggling auto maker attempts to turn around its North American business, Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says.

“Perception lags reality,” Fields tells Ward’s. “This campaign is like the 2007 version of ‘Have You Driven a Ford Lately’ (campaign). We want to get on peoples’ shopping lists.”

The new Fusion advertising campaign will be featured in a variety of national media, including newspapers, cable and network television, radio and the Internet. Spots and print ads were produced both for the national market and for use locally by dealers.

Barry Engle, general manager-Ford Div. Marketing, is confident the new initiative can help place Fusion among the top sellers in the critical midsize-car sector.

Engle, who just recently returned to North America after a stint in South America, says his past experiences show Fusion can compete, and dominate, its segment.

“I came from a place in the world where we launched the Fusion against the same competitors, and now it’s the segment leader,” he tells Ward’s.

Meanwhile, Ford rolls out a new campaign celebrating the F-Series’ 30 years of fullsize pickup sales leadership.

It will bow in the form of two new television ads during the college football Bowl Championship Series and National Football League playoffs. The first ad, dubbed “Cake,” shows an ’07 F-150 smashing through an oversized cake with the number 30 written in frosting.

Print elements of the campaign will debut Jan. 5.

Another ad boasts Ford’s achievement is not celebrated with fireworks and party hats, but rather the satisfaction of a job well done.

In support of the F-Series campaign, Ford announces new lease offers on ’07 F-Series, including a F-150 SuperCab XLT for $249 a month for 36 months, with $1,999 due at signing; and F-150 Super Crew XLT for $299 a month for 24 months, with $1,999 due at signing.

Customers wishing to purchase can opt for 2.9% financing for 60 months or $3,000 cash back.

bpope@wardsauto.com