DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. expects to complete studies by year-end on how best to compete in the subcompact segment in North America and likely will tap Mazda Motor Corp. to engineer the necessary small car.

Ford Ka doesn’t work for North American market.

With the success of BMW AG’s Mini and DaimlerChrysler AG’s preparations to bring some of its Smart products to the U.S. next year, Ford knows the segment deserves serious consideration – and it is getting it, says Phil Martens, Ford group vice president-North America product creation.

“It’s something I want to get done this year,” says Martens, referring to feasibility studies.

The reasons for playing in the segment go beyond the desire to have a vehicle line at a low price point. They include the boost small vehicles give an auto maker’s corporate average fuel economy, allowing more leeway for other product plans.

“There’s four or five different factors that you have to sort through,” says Martens. “I think within our product line we do see that as an opportunity. Now how we fill that opportunity, we haven’t completed our studies on it. But clearly as we look forward, I think it’s important that we recognize as the world kind of harmonizes itself, we are going to see a wider range of acceptance in the U.S. and in Canada for B and B-plus size vehicles, which in the past have been viewed as a little too small.”

He says Alain Batty, Ford of Canada Ltd. president and CEO, has been pushing especially hard for a small car for the Canadian market. “It’s the No.1 thing he talks to me about,” says Martens. “He’s very outspoken.”

Martens credits the Mini for softening the ground.

“The key thing was the Mini was engineered to be a U.S. product, to meet regulatory and all major requirements,” says Martens.

That is the knock against the Ford Ka – it never was intended for sale on this side of the ocean and there are too many feasibility issues against importing it.

Among the hurdles: It would have to meet bumper requirements in a 5.5-mph (8.9 km/h) crash. “You have to do a lot of other things, re-crash, re-certify. It’s not a simple deal,” says Martens.

Starting from scratch is the only sensible option.

“The good news is we have the capability to work within the total Ford enterprise and make it happen,” says Martens.

Mazda has been selected to lead engineering on the next-generation B platform for the Ford empire, and it is expected to yield a small vehicle for North America.

“I’m very delighted they’re doing (the B platform),” says Martens, who spent a stint at Mazda from 1999 until his return to Ford in January 2003. “I know those people very well and they’re very capable of doing it. I know they’ll do an excellent job.”

Meanwhile, Mazda used the recent North American International Auto Show here to show its MX Micro Sport 5-door hatchback concept that appears headed for sale in North America later this year. It comes off the existing B platform that also spawned the Mazda2. (See related story: Mazda Says MX-Micro Sport Concept Going into Production)

Indications are a Ford Mini fighter would wait and come off the next-generation B architecture.