SAN FRANCISCO – Ford Motor Co. has been criticized widely for its lack of a competitive small car in the U.S., especially when it builds some of the finest B-segment cars in the world in Europe and other overseas markets.

Pundits question why Ford can’t import those small cars to North America, a seemingly simple solution to compete against the hot-selling Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa subcompacts here.

But it’s not that simple, says Freeman Thomas, Ford director-strategic design for North America Advanced Studios in California and Dearborn, MI.

“You have to look at the brand and what people expect out of a brand,” Thomas tells Ward’s at a media event here.

“I just came back from Europe, and I was looking at a lot of (subcompact) cars,” he says. “One of the things you realize when you’re in Europe is that small cars look really vulnerable. But (such cars are) OK for the European environment, because (car buyers) accept that.”

However, American consumers are more interested in “security and being safe and stable and also roomy,” says Thomas, a former Chrysler Group designer.

What works in Europe will not work in the U.S., he says, due in part to differences in road infrastructure and the size of European countries compared with the U.S.

European cities and towns are close together, keeping vehicle occupants in constant touch with civilization. But U.S. motorists often travel great distances between populated areas, thus the need for a beefier, more substantial small car that envelops the driver with a sense of security.

“I try to design a perception of feeling secure,” Thomas says. “To achieve that is not just accepting what is there, but to negotiate with engineering to get things so they’re in the right place to support design and for design to support engineering.”

Despite the differences in designing cars for Europe vs. the U.S., there are trends the two cultures share that will influence future vehicle design, Thomas says.

“Obviously, we’re not going to show our hand as to what we’re bringing out as a small car,” he says. “But I can tell you America will influence European design to a certain extent, just the way certain styling, design and cultural trends have migrated back and forth.”

One practice the U.S. has learned from Europe is efficiency in packaging of a vehicle, Thomas says, citing the way in which U.S. cars have evolved over the last 50 years or so.

“If we go back to the old idiom of the 1950s that you basically styled the car (first and foremost), there was a lot of wasted space within the vehicle,” Thomas says. Borrowing from European efficiency can apply to the design of small cars, as well.

“It’s really about creating balance,” he says. “It’s getting the wheels out as far as you can (for more) room inside the vehicle. But it also is creating a design that communicates dependability.”

America has its share of influence on the rest of the world, Thomas says, not just in vehicle design but also in “sports trends, design trends, music trends, fashion and everything else.”

That’s because America is an open society that more readily accepts new ideas than older European countries, he says. Because America is an early adopter of new trends, consumers want choices, which differentiates the U.S. auto market from the rest of the world.

“As we start to design (a vehicle),” says Thomas, “our challenge is to create something we think could challenge and influence the Europeans to do something a little different.”