DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. unveils both a 3- and 4-door version of its Verve small-car concept at the 2008 North American International Auto Show here.

The 4-door Verve concept is the basis for the production version that will be sold in North America in 2010, while the 3-door is being shown to gauge consumer reaction to the alternative body style, the auto maker says.

Both versions serve as "curtain raisers" to a new global family of small cars that Ford plans to offer, starting this year in Europe.

The Verve benefits from the auto maker’s years of expertise in building small cars for the European market, says Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development.

"We’re looking at every aspect of what has defined Ford as a small-car leader in Europe and working to build on this expertise in driving dynamics and design across a global family of Ford cars that are as exciting to drive as they are to look at," he says.

"These concepts demonstrate how leveraging our global strengths can yield attractive benefits for our customers in markets around the world."

The Verve is Ford’s attempt to enter the small-car market in North America, which is growing in popularity as gasoline prices rise, along with a trend towards environmentally friendly vehicles.

The popularity of B-cars is evidenced by the success Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. have had with their respective entries into the segment – the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit.

Ford predicts global B-car sales will grow from 23 million units in 2002 to an estimated 38 million by 2012. If the estimates are correct, the segment will account for nearly 45% of the total expected 85 million-unit global industry, a level never before achieved, Ford says.

Sales of the small cars in the U.S. are expected to jump 25%, or 800,000 units, to a record 3.4 million by 2012, Ford says.

Driving the segment growth is the "Millennial" generation, which Ford describes as young people aged 13-28 years. The segment is 1.7 billion strong and will represent 28% of the total U.S. population by 2010.

"Millennials will be the defining group of customers in the future, driving all types of consumer trends," says Jim Farley, Ford group vice president-marketing and communications.

"Ford’s European-based cars are a great fit for this generation of drivers, who have grown up with the Internet and mobile phones as necessities, not luxuries – believing that bigger isn’t necessarily better, precision is everything and technology rules."

The Verve concept boasts a flexible design architecture, which Ford says will allow it to adapt quickly to changing customer tastes and help the company enter new markets with specifically tailored products.

The North American Verve concept differs slightly from the model that will be offered in European and Asian markets. The most noticeable change is the front fascia, which boasts a twin-grille design, with the Blue Oval in the upper grille opening and an inverted trapezoidal grille below.

The two Verve concepts being shown here are the first displayed in North America, although Ford unveiled versions of the cars at last year’s Frankfurt auto show and the Guangzhou International Automobile Exhibition in China.

All of the concepts share common design elements, including an "athletic" sculpted hood, light-emitting diode and rearward-stretching headlamps that Ford says gives the car a "friendly, open and inviting personality."

Inside, the auto maker makes use of numerous high-tech components, including a navigation system, MP3 player and in-car phone controls.

The center stack combines sculpture, colors, materials and jewelry-like brightwork, Ford says.

"Customers in this segment demand the best," says J Mays, group vice president-design and chief creative officer. "While young in age, they are sophisticated, globally connected and demand the best the world has to offer, be it consumer electronics, fashion or automobiles."

Ford declines to reveal what powers the Verve concept, only saying it’s a fuel-efficient 4-cyl. engine.

However, Ford officials have hinted the Verve could receive a 4-cyl. application of its EcoBoost engine technology that, through the use of direct-injection and turbocharging technology, can increase the power of a small-displacement engine.

It’s also unclear whether the production version of the car will retain the Verve moniker. During a recent meeting with journalists, CEO Alan Mulally said the name of the production version has yet to be decided.

Mulally’s interest in reviving iconic Ford nameplates has sparked speculation Ford may badge the car as an Escort or Fiesta.

The auto maker has yet to reveal where the Verve production version will be assembled, but Kuzak told Ward’s in September the high-volume car would be built at multiple plants.

A new Ford facility in Nanjing, China, appears to be one site. "The first product out of (the Nanjing) plant will be the new B-car that we will be launching throughout the region," John Parker, group vice president-Asia Pacific and Africa, told Ward’s in August.

bpope@wardsauto.com