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Auto sales in China have slowed, but the Middle Kingdom's car market isn't dead yet: Wholesale deliveries of cars and light trucks were up 16% in June, according to the China Association of Auto Manufacturers, as automakers moved to stock up dealers before the traditional summer production shutdown.
Ford's (NYSE: F ) efforts in China have trailed those of other big global automakers, most notably General Motors (NYSE: GM ) , the market leader, and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , which has built a big presence on its global reputation for quality. But Ford's push to catch up is starting to bear fruit: The Blue Oval's Chinese sales were up big in June, led by big sales of one of Ford's hottest products.
A familiar sales star for Ford
Ford posted a 28% gain in passenger car sales, outpacing the overall Chinese market -- thanks to big sales of the Ford Focus. The compact Focus -- the same model that has sold so well here and in Europe -- had its Chinese debut in April, and has been a hot seller since.
Ford sold almost 15,000 Focuses in China in June, making it by far the company's most popular model in the country. For comparison, Ford has been selling about 21,000 Focuses a month in the U.S. in recent months -- but its dealer network in China is (so far) just a fraction of the size of its massive network here.
The Focus is the first of 15 new products Ford plans to roll out in China by mid-decade, the beginning of a massive expansion that Ford hopes will double its sales in the Middle Kingdom. With new auto sales restrictions in key cities and a slowing economy, the competition for new sales will be fierce. The initial success of the Focus suggests that Ford has a good chance of winning the gains it seeks.
Sales gains at the expense of the home team
Ford's sales have been up and down in 2012 -- despite its big gains in June, the Blue Oval's sales were up just 1% in the first half over year-ago totals, as sales were actually down 14% in the first quarter. But more gains may be in store: A full line of SUVs is on the way, including the big-selling Explorer and a version of the hot all-new Escape, as Ford seeks a big piece of the fast-growing Chinese SUV market.
But not all automakers have been enjoying Ford's success. While GM's gains continue to outpace the market, and global giants like Toyota and Volkswagen (NASQADOTH: VLKAY.PK) have done well, those gains have come at the expense of the local automakers. Some Chinese car manufacturers, like SAIC, have done well via joint ventures with the likes of GM, but others, like Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) -backed BYD Auto, are fading.
BYD, once acclaimed as the rising star of China's domestic auto industry, is losing ground -- sales were down 12% for the year through May. Despite government policies favoring the local firms, Chinese consumers have proved fickle -- so far, the domestic products can't compare with the polished, high-quality offerings from global giants like Toyota and Ford.
Ford has positioned the Focus as a premium offering in China -- its tight handling and huge list of standard features make it seem like a luxury car in comparison with the local competition, and Ford has priced it accordingly. So far, that has proved to be a winning sales formula. If Ford can replicate that success with its equally-polished SUVs, the Blue Oval's Chinese fortunes could keep getting better.
Ford's stock has been under pressure lately, with its stock dropping below $10 a share. But the company is still performing very well at home and is investing heavily for growth abroad. Have these short-term pressures created an incredible buying opportunity, or are there hidden risks with the stock that investors need to know about? To answer that, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Get instant access to this premium report.