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TOKYO-Ford Motor Co.'s Mustang, true to its name, is kicking up a storm with unexpected fast-paced sales in the Japanese automotive market.

Powered by its low import price and a multimillion dollar ad campaign that Ford claims outstrips spending of any foreign auto marketer, Mustang sales reached 865 in just over three weeks from its May 11 debut, according to Ford Motor Japan. This is more than one-third of Ford's 2,500 target for the entire year.

Ford credits the success of the Mustang campaign with its strategy: To dispel Japanese views that American cars are far too expensive and out of the range of ordinary consumers.

"We are breaking the common perception that American cars are high-priced," said a Ford spokesman.

According to research company INFO-PLAN, in Japan's post-bubble economy consumers are choosing relatively inexpensive car models at discount prices. Car buyers are also seeking the best value for money they can find and more and more frequently this includes the consideration of foreign-made autos as well.

Causing the biggest stir for Ford is the price of the basic 3,800 cubic centimeter S coupe, at $22,500 compared to Toyota's Supra at $27,619; Nissan's 3,000 cubic centimeter Fairlady Z at $33,000; and General Motors' 3,300 cubic centimeter Camaro at $31,500.

Making an equal splash is the Mustang convertible, the first convertible of this engine displacement on sale anywhere in Japan. Selling at $33,620, the 3,800 cubic centimeter V-6 Mustang convertible is in a league of its own: Currently only small convertibles are on the market here, such as Mazda Motors' Miyata roadster with a 1,600 cubic centimeter engine displacement. The Miyata is so small it only seats two compared to the Mustang's four.

The Mustang is entering the market possibly at the best moment, with signs of economic recovery emerging. In the year ended March 31, 1994, car sales in Japan plunged 7% to 4.9 million units compared to the same period the previous year. But the five biggest Japanese producers now are predicting a rise in sales of between 4.5% and 9.2% this year.

Still, Ford is competing for a small share of the pie. Imports accounted for only 3.1% of total unit sales in the year ended in March. Mercedes-Benz leads the imported car market with a 12% share, followed by BMW's 12.6%, Volkswagen's 10.8% and Chrysler's 5.8%, according to Ford's figures. Ford comes in sixth, with 4.2%, behind Opel's 5.5%.

Even the left-hand drive of the Mustang isn't expected to be a drawback, Ford execs say. In fact, it may be a plus: Mustang is being marketed as an all-American car in Japan, where Ford believes consumers are growing weary of lookalike cars.

Ford won't disclose spending figures, but its ad blitz started last November by promoting all Fords, with Mustang as the flagship model. Created by Dentsu, the page ads ran in all of Japan's mass circulation dailies every weekend and three times a month in 40 local and regional newspapers. The ads featured Ford's model lineup such as the Explorer and Taurus station wagon and discussed comfort in driving, safety and pricing.

In late January TV from J. Walter Thompson Co. kicked in, showing the Taurus, Explorer and other Ford models and only vaguely alluding to the Mustang. JWT used actors and actresses saying, "This is my first Ford," or "This is the first Ford for my family."

It wasn't until May 11, however, when ads specifically about Mustang hit TV screens. The :15 and :30 spots show a young Japanese man, a young woman and a middle aged man looking at different Ford models saying: "This is the Ford I was looking for."

In an unusual move for Japan, but not for the U.S. automaker, Ford's campaign is aiming directly at the consumer while most Japanese carmakers tend to urge potential customers to go visit the company's distributor to get more details. Ford, instead, is offering information about the car that doesn't necessitate a dealer visit.

The Ford spokesman predicts overall Ford sales this year will reach 60,000, including 15,000 imports. Ford's long-range target is to sell about 250,000 cars in Japan early in the next century.

David Kilburn contributed to this story.

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