Ford's Brazilian unit is working on a redesign of its EcoSport SUV, a re-work of the European Fusion multipurpose model (itself derived from the European Fiesta) and the new larger vehicle will be exported to the US, according to The Car Connection (TCC) website.

The new car will be engineered in Brazil but built in Mexico where Ford already assembles a number of US-bound models such as its entry-level Focus line.

TCC noted that basic development costs in Brazil are very competitive because an engineer's salary there is about one-third of what is paid in more developed countries.

TCC added that the current EcoSport has been a huge success in Latin countries where it is sold and that the new one would be an ideal replacement for the current Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute small SUVs, which are about the same size.

In the first two years, Ford Brazil produced 170,000 units at its Camaçari plant, Bahia state, alongside the local Fiesta hatchback and sedan models.

About 75,000 were sold in Brazil and 95,000 were exported. The principal foreign market was Mexico where 49,000 units were sold from mid-2003 to mid-2005.

Despite the success in Latin countries, Ford do Brasil has always wanted to sell its EcoSport in the US. A year after the introduction of the front wheel drive versions, Ford Brazil in March 2004 launched a four-wheel drive version with the stated aim of boosting sales at home and finally entering the United States market.

There were plans to export the new version to Canada by the end of 2004 as part of a strategy to enter the US market by stealth.

It hoped to also send the EcoSport to the USA but the US parent came under pressure from its unions not to sell the foreign-made vehicle there.

The current EcoSport 4WD shares its Control Trac II 4WD system with the US-built Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute and is powered by a Duratec 2.0-litre 16-valve petrol engine imported from Mexico.

An additional version, named EcoSport Flex and launched in June 2005, has a 1.6-litre, eight-valve engine whose power output varies between 105hp and 111hp depending on the mix of petrol and ethanol fuels used.

Ford Brazil said at the time that strong sales of the EcoSport and the Fiesta model, all 'members' of its Project Amazon, were slowing expansion of the range.

With the EcoSport, Fiesta hatch and sedan models, the Camaçari plant was working at full capacity and the automaker had postponed the introduction of new vehicles such as a pick-up and minivan.

Transferring production of the redesigned model to Mexico - with which Brazil has a free trade agreement - would free up space at Camaçari for those additional models.

Ford do Brasil currently has spare capacity at its São Bernardo do Campo plant, in São Paulo state, but, last October, received US head office approval to build a new low cost compact car there for launch in 2008.

That model will be designed and developed in Brazil and will also be exported to other Latin America countries.

São Bernardo do Campo currently makes the low-volume Fiesta Street (the previous-generation Fiesta hatch), Ka and Courier compact pick-up. Another assembly line there makes trucks.

Graeme Roberts