Ford Motor Co. is out to change the notion that its products are inferior to Japanese competitors, a top executive says.

The auto maker took the first step with a recently launched television ad campaign that pits the Ford Fusion midsize sedan directly against the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

“We’re taking a more aggressive approach,” Cisco Codina, Ford group vice president-North America marketing, sales and service, tells Ward’s.

“We felt we needed to do this to get the awareness and recognition and…consideration that we deserve.”

To back Ford’s claim its products are on par with the competition, Codina points to recent gains the auto maker has made in quality and productivity reports by J.D. Power and Associates and Harbour Consulting Inc.

He also cites a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports that randomly asked 900 adults to rank brands sold in the U.S. market on six criteria: design/style, performance, quality, safety, technology/innovation and value.

Although Toyota took the top spot, Ford placed second, ahead of Honda and Chevrolet. Codina says the study shows negative perceptions of Ford aren’t “deep seeded.”

“We have a chance to turn some of those consumers into customers,” he says. “And that’s exactly what our intent is.”

One of the primary criticisms levied by critics against Ford is the marque lacks the quality of its Japanese rivals. Privately, many Ford executives admit past quality wasn’t up to snuff. But that’s changed, they say, and it’s up to Codina and his team to educate consumers on the strides Ford has made.

“I think there’s a lag between the reality of where we are in terms of quality, durability and styling and value in the eyes of the consumers,” Codina says. “We have to change that. And as the person responsible for that, I’m going to change it.”

Meanwhile, Codina says Ford’s plan to cut some 600 dealerships from its 4,300 U.S. stores is on schedule.

However, he denies accusations by the Ford Motor Minority Dealers Assn. the auto maker is unfairly targeting African-American-owned franchises for closure.

“We’re not targeting anyone. Being a minority myself, I could never do that. I wouldn’t do that,” says Codina, a Cuban native. “We have proved that to (the FMMDA), I think.”

bpope@wardsauto.com