Al Kammerer, Ford Motor Co.'s vehicle line director for the Focus platform team, is trying to explain to a room of skeptical journalists what his 600 team members learned from Ford's last global vehicle effort, the infamous $6 billion CDW27 program that gave birth to Mondeo, Contour and Mercury Mystique.

"Back in the pre-Ford 2000 days we had watchers watching the people doing," says the earnest Mr. Kammerer, who also was instrumental in developing the last generation Ford Escort. "In this program, we just took the watchers out. "

As Focus hits showrooms throughout Europe this fall - it will make its North American debut in October 1999 - we can begin to measure whether the stressful, wrenching and occasionally confusing corporate makeover known as Ford 2000 has improved the way CEO Jacques A. Nasser's troops bring new vehicles to market.

Of course, Ford execs won't say how much this 36-month program has cost, although something less than $3 billion is a reasonable guess. Indeed, Will Boddie, vice president in charge of Ford's small and medium vehicle center, states confidently that Focus "absolutely, with no qualification, will make money."

Like Escort, Ford hopes to sell Focus in 60 different countries. But the global sales targets are much higher than its more pedestrian-looking predecessor.

"Once we get global production ramped up (in Saarlouis, Germany; Valencia, Spain, and Wayne, MI), this is a vehicle that will sell 1 million units plus, " says Mr. Nasser, adding that Ford plans to spin at least two or three more products off the Focus platform, including a multi-activity vehicle that should be ready in about 18 months.

There is significant new technology, including side air bags, a "control blade" multi-link rear suspension that minimizes body roll and, beginning next year in Europe, a Continental-Teves Electronic Stability Program system that will be offered as an option.

So costs had to come out elsewhere.

For example, the Focus body structure, which is twice as stiff as Escort's, reflects the most intensive use of Ford's computer-aided engineering technology, says Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's product development guru.

Consequently, about 100 crash tests were done using the design system, avoiding the need to ram 100 separate prototypes into barriers at a cost of $300,000 each.

Ford is taking advantage of global sourcing to an unprecedented degree with Focus. At both Saarlouis and Valencia, Ford has industrial parks adjacent to the assembly plants from which first-tier suppliers ship as many as 15 modular subassemblies just-in-time to the assembly line.

In France, Focus went on sale in October at prices ranging between FF87,700 and FF102,700 or $16,000 to $18,800 at recent currency exchange rates. But extrapolating from European pricing to predict how Ford will price it in the U.S. is risky.

Despite all the talk about global platforms, engineering a car that works in markets as culturally, geographically and attitudinally different as North America and Europe is extremely difficult.

First, there are very distinct concepts of space. In Europe, Focus is a midsize family car. In the U.S., it will be an entry-level car. It's a similar trade-off to what Ford encountered with the Mondeo/Contour/Mystique program.

"We started to play with the height, and that allowed us to move the driver and front passenger forward and more upright," says John Doughty, Focus chief designer. Indeed, the H-point (where the occupant's hip rests) is 2 ins. (50 mm) higher than Escort's, and the overall height is 3 ins. (76 mm) higher on the sedan.

Visually, the most compelling aspect of the 3- and 5-door hatchback design is an extended greenhouse that stretches all the way back to merge with triangular high-mounted tail lights. Of course, hatchbacks are much more popular in Europe. When Focus is introduced in the U.S. next year it will be offered in sedan, wagon and 3-door hatchback body styles.

Although some European consumers may see similarities between Focus and the wildly successful Renault Megane Scenic, there was no intention to emulate the micro-utility effect of the French car.

"We didn't want it to look like a multi-activity vehicle," says Mr. Doughty. At least not yet.

There will be a more utility-type or hybrid vehicle derived from Focus, and perhaps even a V-6 powertrain offered in North America by the end of the platform's life cycle. One of the biggest challenges is engineering a 4-wheel-drive package that doesn't compromise on interior space.

"To do 4-wheel drive you have to transfer power from the front to the back, and that means adding a driveshaft, which, of course, takes up space," Mr. Kammerer says.

Europeans can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of engines: four 16-valve dual-overhead-cam Ztecs (1.4L, 1.6L, 1.8L and 2L) and a 1.8 Endura direct-injection turbodiesel. In North America the choices will be between a 2L Ztec E and a 2L Ztec SE mated with either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transaxle.

It's impossible, especially 11 months before its North American sales introduction, to determine whether Focus is so flexible in its design and engineering that it can keep technology-obsessed Europeans and space-hungry Americans equally happy.

"They're learning from the packaging mistakes they have made on Taurus and Contour/Mystique," says George Peterson, a former Ford marketing official who is now president of AutoPacific Group Inc. in Santa Ana, CA. "One of the keys is that it is fun to drive, and the Escort wasn't."

But within a year of its U.S. debut, Focus will be competing against yet another new Honda Civic, a car whose evolution inevitably will be in the direction of more interior space.

Says Mr. Parry-Jones, "I think the design will attract some people who otherwise wouldn't consider a Ford product. Our real goal with this car is to get people to realize Ford has moved on a long way since their last experience with the company."

If he can achieve that, he really is a guru.