Click on the 'play' button below to hear our audio interview with Bill Ford and then read the article below:

DETROIT — It’s no stretch to say that Ford is on a roll. In December, it had its best sales month in a year in half, up 33 percent from the previous year. It won both Car (the Fusion Hybrid) and Truck (Transit Connect) of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show. And it’s stock is up, too.

So it was a fairly upbeat Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, who I interviewed in Detroit earlier this week (see the video above). I started by asking him about the company’s small car strategy — exemplified by its new world car, the Focus (debuted in Detroit), and the even smaller Fiesta (which is being test driven by Internet bloggers).

“We decided four or five years ago that we had to have global platforms,” he told MNN. “We had a strong truck and SUV lineup, and our car line was strong outside the U.S., so that meant taking our global products and bringing them to North America.” Ford said that the Focus would be “the fuel economy and carbon dioxide emission leader in every country in the world. It’s not just a great small car, it’s the right small car for CO2 and fuel efficiency. We benchmarked everything in the class, said we had to be better than them, and we are.”

Ford will produce an electric version of the Focus for 2011 and a “next-generation” hybrid (based on its all-conquering C-platform) in 2012, the same year a plug-in hybrid will be part of the mix. The company announced in Detroit that it would invest $450 million in Michigan as part of its EV strategy, including building all the aforementioned vehicles there. Bill Ford was widely quoted as saying, “I love Michigan.”

Hydrogen has taken a back seat at Ford (and many other automakers) as better batteries are making plug-in electric cars both more feasible and more affordable. “Five years ago battery development had hit a wall, and we were pushing hydrogen hard. But now so much money and brain power has been thrown at electrification that we’re starting to see significant improvements in batteries in a way we hadn’t anticipated,” he said. “And now we have the confidence that the customer can have a good experience with batteries.”

Still, Ford is hedging its bets. “It’s not yet clear what technology will ultimately prevail,” Ford said. “So we’re investing it all — electrics, hybrids, biofuels, fuel cells, EcoBoost for conventional engines, clean diesel in Europe. We’re in a transition phase now, but some technologies will rise to the top and predominate.”

It’s become clear that big engines are out in Detroit, and some columnists are even proclaiming (or mourning; it's hard to tell) the demise of the large engines, including even the once-ubiquitous V-6. “Our EcoBoost technology [four- and six-cylinder engines with turbocharging] is going a long way to making that shift possible,” Ford said. “A few years ago, if you bought a four-cylinder car it was usually underpowered, particularly if it had an automatic. There was always a tradeoff on fuel economy and performance, but now you don’t have to sacrifice anymore — you can get the performance of a V-6 and the economy of a four.”

Ford isn’t sure what percentage of the auto fleet is headed for electrification, but he says Ford will be there whenever the market is ready. “We won’t be the laggards; if the demand is there, we will be there 100 percent,” he said. “The big issue is ubiquity of charging. Customers don’t want to be inconvenienced. If they buy an EV, they want to know where they can plug in, and what it will cost. We can’t solve that by ourselves, but we’re working hard with utilities and the government to make that happen.”

He’s not just saying that. Ford has partnered with a dozen utilities, plus the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) on grid strategies. The company has credibility on green car issues for a good reason.

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