The Toyota Corolla, left, and the Ford Fusion, right, are...

The Toyota Corolla, left, and the Ford Fusion, right, are battling it out for global cred as the top selling car. Credit: Toyota, Ford

Ford Motor Co. said its Focus compact remained the top-selling car worldwide in the first quarter as sales more than doubled in China.

The automaker, citing data from researcher R.L. Polk & Co., said global Focus registrations rose 18 percent in the first three months of the year to 288,724. In China, Focus sales rose 153 percent to 104,065, making it the No. 1 market for the small car, surpassing the U.S. Ford produces the Focus in nine factories worldwide and sold 1.02 million last year.

Ford has said the Focus overtook Toyota Motor Corp.’s Corolla compact last year, which the Japanese automaker disputed. Toyota, which includes Corolla derivatives such as the Matrix in its count, has insisted its model remains the world’s top-selling vehicle. The disagreement shows how heated the battle for bragging rights has become as Detroit has stepped up its game in cars and challenged Toyota and Honda Motor Co.

“Toyota is feeling the pressure right now from all directions,” said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst based in Boston. “Toyota used to be the brand where everybody went, but they’re kind of losing their mojo. There’s nothing wrong with the product, it’s just that everyone else has gotten so much better.”

Focus has pulled ahead of Corolla because its styling is more eye-catching, Wolkonowicz said. Both models deliver on other small-car attributes, such as fuel economy and safety.

“People want a car that turns heads and the Focus does that,” Wolkonowicz said. “Toyota realizes their Achilles heel is design. Toyota design needs a makeover.”

New Corolla

Toyota has a new Corolla coming next month that features knife-edge creases and a gaping, trapezoidal grille. While it’s not as edgy as the Furia concept Toyota showed at the Detroit auto show in January, the new Corolla aims to give the company a dash of style as Toyota president Akio Toyoda has demanded.

“The new Corolla is more distinctive and is an acknowledgment that the previous model was too bland,” said Tom Libby, Polk’s lead analyst for North America. “I talked to a Focus buyer in his 40s and he told me he really likes the look of the hatchback.”

Focus global registrations have grown 57 percent since the first quarter of 2009, according to Erich Merkle, Ford’s sales analyst. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker redesigned the model in 2010 as chief executive Alan Mulally emphasized fielding competitive, fuel-efficient cars with distinctive design. Previously, cars had taken a backseat to trucks and sport-utility vehicles at Ford.

“The Focus goes beyond just being a utilitarian vehicle,” Merkle said in an interview. “It provides something more expressive on the road than many of its competitors.”

Disputed count

Toyota, which declined to comment for this story, disputed that the Focus surpassed the Corolla in global sales last year. Toyota said it sold 1.16 million Corollas worldwide last year, topping Focus by 140,000 vehicles. Toyota took issue with how Polk, based in Southfield, Mich., counted Corolla deliveries, which excluded derivatives such as the Auris in Europe and Verso in Japan.

“Corolla registrations attributed to Polk come up short by nearly 300,000 units,” Mike Michels, Toyota’s U.S. vice president of communications, said in April. “This discrepancy is glaring and we have requested clarification.”

Polk has provided clarification to Michels by explaining that Ford requested all Corolla derivatives be excluded in the registration comparison between the two models, according to Anthony Pratt, a vice president of forecasting for the researcher.

‘Ford’s analysis’

“Ford benefits from the fact that they go to market as the Ford Focus around the world while some of their competitors may use different names in different markets,” Pratt said in an interview. “We validate the position as being the highest registration volumes based on a strict interpretation based on the fact that Ford was looking at vehicle nameplate.”

While Pratt verified that Ford is using Polk data, he added: “This is Ford’s analysis of Polk data. It’s not that Polk is issuing a news release or a report.”

Pratt declined to provide a figure for first-quarter worldwide Corolla registrations.

In China, Ford benefits from having two versions of the Focus — the new model sold in the U.S. and Europe as well as the previous generation Focus that is sold at a lower price.

Ford isn’t the only U.S. automaker gaining on Toyota. Sales of General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Cruze compact rose 70 percent in the U.S. in July and outsold the Corolla.

“The American auto companies are taking the compact segment far more seriously than they used to,” Wolkonowicz said. “If the Japanese automakers don’t take Detroit seriously in compact cars, it’s going to be at their peril.”

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