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Ford raises forecast for 2012 total U.S. auto sales

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) - Ford Motor Co has raised its forecast for total 2012 U.S. auto sales after the industry's solid first quarter, Ford President for the Americas Mark Fields said on Wednesday.

Ford now expects the U.S. auto industry sales for the year to be 14.5 million to 15 million vehicles, including medium and heavy trucks. That is up from its previous forecast of 13.5 million to 14.5 million.

At the same time, and because of the stronger overall industry, Ford is likely to lose U.S. market share this year, Fields said. In 2011, Ford was No. 2 with 16.8 percent of the U.S. market behind crosstown rival General Motors Co at 19.6 percent.

In 2008, before the U.S. auto industry went into a deep slump, GM's market share was 22 percent and Ford's was 15 percent.

Fields, speaking at a Bank of America auto industry conference in New York, also said that Ford will lose money in Europe and in Asia in the first quarter, but the company is on track with its previous forecast of a higher automotive pre-tax operating profit this year than in 2011.

This year's total company operating profit is expected to be about the same as in 2011, Fields said, which is unchanged from its previous forecast.

For Ford in Europe, Fields said, "We expect first-quarter results to be about the same or somewhat worse than the fourth-quarter 2011 pre-tax loss of $190 million."

In keeping with previous forecasting, Fields said Ford expects "full-year 2012 results for Ford Europe to be limited to a loss of about $500 million to $600 million."

Fields also said that Ford will realize a "small loss" in Asia in the first quarter because of major investments in new products like the midsized pickup truck Ford Ranger in Asia and Africa, the launch of the Ford Focus in China and the expense of opening an assembly plant in Chongqing in China.

Ford in Asia will be profitable for the full year in 2012, Fields said.

Ford's North American business will continue to be the company's strong point, Fields said.

The overall European market continues to weaken, Fields said, so Ford has slightly lowered its expectation for industry auto sales in its key 19 counties there to the low end of its previously announced 14 million to 15 million vehicles range.

In the United States, Ford joins several companies that have raised 2012 auto sales forecast based on the unexpectedly strong first quarter, when the industry quickened the pace of what had been a slow recovery from the 2008-2009 downturn.

Most of the auto industry tracks auto sales without counting medium and heavy trucks as Ford does. This light vehicle auto sales rate generally runs about 300,000 fewer sales than if the bigger trucks are included.

Ford's new expectation for total light vehicle U.S. sales for the year would be between 14.2 million and 14.7 million vehicles.

First-quarter U.S. light vehicle auto sales were about 14.5 million to 14.6 million vehicles, which was the best quarterly sales rate in four years.

So far, 2012 sales indicate a much quicker recovery than in recent years.

Last year, U.S. light vehicle sales were 12.8 million. Sales in 2010 were 11.6 million and in the lowest level since World War II accounting for population, 2009 sales were 10.4 million.

In a 10-year period ending in 2007, U.S. auto sales averaged nearly 17 million vehicles.

(Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by Andre Grenon, Gary Hill)

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