verve.jpgBy Barbara Kessler

How did Ford do it? Despite a gloomy domestic economy and malingering slumping car and truck sales, the American automaker scooped up a handy first quarter 2008 net income of $100 million (a huge boost of $382 million over Q1 2007).

The explanation for the financial surprise lies not in the ailing U.S. market where Ford once relied on pre-recession consumers to grab up high-margin luxury pick-ups and SUVs, but in the global economy.

The economic Fiesta – and we mean that literally – was in Europe and South America, where Ford has been busy cultivating a greener market with small, relatively fuel-efficient cars, like the Ford Fiesta.

According to Ford’s info on its recent uptick, the company now has nearly a 10 percent share of the “Euro 19” market and its Fiesta was the top-selling model (with 46,800 sold) there in the first quarter of 2008. Ford of Europe’s next bestsellers were the Focus (44,600) and the Mondeo (18,700).

The news could get better, at least for the Fiesta (which gets upwards of 38 mpg depending on the engine and version). Ford Europe introduced a redesigned version of the 30+-year-old model at the Geneva Motor Show in early March. The new Fiesta features a modernistic curved roofline and a dash replete with the latest techno tricks, like built-in phone buttons and a “Human Machine Interface” with a computer screen for driver/car communications. It is the production version of the Verve Concept Car, which was designed and developed in Europe and is available with either a gasoline or diesel engine.

Ford touts the new Fiesta as creating “a world standard for small car quality, design and comfort.”

The problem is part of the world is already frustrated that the Fiesta/Verve won’t be available for U.S. consumers until 2010. Potential American buyers who’ve seen the candy-apple red prototype at auto shows lavish praise on it at the motor company’s blog site, raving about its “space ship like quality” and “European flair.”

“Aston Martin meets Peugot” gushes one man. “One of the most stunning cars in the hall,’’ said another shopper, who saw the Verve at the Dallas Auto Show.

Though it’s unclear exactly how committed these car enthusiasts are to fuel economy – a few comments suggest that, presented with a snappy looking car, fuel economy could be a deal clincher. “I have recently been more and more interested in small cars, as opposed to trucks and suvs,” pens one man.