DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. sees the North American market as ripe for small cars and is considering more than one entry in the B-segment, says Jim Padilla, president and chief operating officer.

Ford uses the North American International Auto Show here to unveil the Reflex, a small sports car concept, which opens the door to similarly sized cars.

“There is room for several possibilities, several entries of (the) B car in the U.S. from Ford,” Padilla says.

Ford and other U.S. auto makers have met with limited success in selling small cars in the U.S., Padilla says, noting efforts such as the Ford Festiva have failed.

But he insists B-segment cars offer “an excellent opportunity.”

The auto maker has a strong base to work from, with the Fiesta in Europe; Mazda Motor Corp.’s work in this segment; and strong products in South America, where Ford cannot keep up with demand.

Reflex may be example of future Ford small cars.

With many industry analysts projecting $3-a-gallon gas again this year and SUV sales for several auto makers plummeting, small cars may be the entree U.S. auto makers need. Analysts remind it was the oil crisis of the 1970s that allowed Asian brands to gain a foothold in the U.S. market.

“We are acting as responsible designers by doing this (designing small cars),” says Freeman Thomas, who leads Ford’s North American strategic design enterprise.

Thomas confirms the B car “is a territory that we are starting to mine.”

Placing the Reflex in front of consumers this year is a way of gauging the enthusiasm for Ford’s hopeful embrace of things small, he says.

Its turbodiesel hybrid-electric engine is completely feasible for production, Thomas says, noting it is not “rocket science.” This furthers the hope of selling the hybrid as a buy with conscience as well as (being) financially prudent.

“We can tell them, ‘this is what a car can do for you,” says Thomas. The Reflex is 156 in. (396 cm) long, he says, and his hope is to introduce cars that are “short and wide.”

Ford and other auto makers had based their production and revenue hopes on selling larger, higher-priced models. But 2005’s lesson was that when oil prices rise, consumers begin to shop small. Europeans, paying $5 a gallon for gas, have done so for years.

Thomas is convinced small cars can move.

“I think the top (management) is convinced we can make money on small cars,” he says.

Mark Fields, Ford's executive vice president and president of the Americas, recently addressed small cars in a speech last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

"As some Asian and European brands have shown, buyers are looking for more than just the small, fuel-efficient vehicles patterned after the ubiquitous econo-boxes of the 1970s and ‘80s," Fields said.

"But no company today is putting an American stamp on the small car segment. That means there’s a huge growth opportunity if only someone is willing to seize it." (See related story: Auto Makers Think Small in L.A.)

stmiller@primediabusiness.com

apriddle@primediabusiness.com