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Ford Shifts Focus (Again): Car Will Be Imported To U.S. From China, Not Mexico

The next-generation Ford Focus will be built in China and exported for sale in the U.S., Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday, abandoning a plan to build the small car in Mexico. Production of the new car is scheduled to begin in 2019.

Ford says the move will save it $1 billion in investment costs and will make it "a more operationally fit company." It also promises that "no U.S. hourly employees will be out of a job" because of the move to China.

The move is not likely to please the White House, as the topics of manufacturing jobs and the location of auto companies' plants have been recurring themes during the first months of the Trump administration.

Back in January, President-elect Trump tweeted, "Car companies and others, if they want to do business in our country, have to start making things here again. WIN!"

When Ford announced a $1.2 billion investment in three of its Michigan facilities in March, the president celebrated by tweeting, "Car companies coming back to U.S. JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!"

Ford is coming off a record year in China, having sold 1.27 million vehicles there in 2016 — a 14 percent gain over 2015. That figure includes vehicles made in China by Ford's joint ventures, as well as Ford and Lincoln imports. When it opened its sixth assembly plant in China back in 2015, Ford said it could build 1.4 million vehicles a year in the country.

For Mexico, this is the second dramatic shift from Ford in 2017. The new Focus originally was to be built in the central state of San Luis Potosi, but the company canceled construction of a $1.6 billion plant there in January.

Plans then called for building the vehicle at an existing facility in Hermosillo in the northwestern state of Sonora — but the company nixed that plan on Tuesday.

The new development prompted the Mexican business journal El Financiero to recount "the sad story of Ford Focus and Mexico," with sections titled "The Illusion," "The Drama" and "The Outcome."

Ford's operations in Mexico have been a talking point for Trump since last year's campaign.

"Trump criticized Ford during the campaign for its decision to move small-car production from Michigan to Mexico," NPR's Sonari Glinton reported last November. "Trump suggested he might impose tariffs on Ford cars assembled in Mexico."

After the November election, Trump took credit for Ford's decision to keep a production plant for the Lincoln MKC in Louisville, Ky., instead of Mexico — but the carmaker clarified that it had never planned to close the Kentucky plant. Ford executives have said that while it can make money off of SUVs built in the U.S., it needs to produce small cars in other countries to keep their sticker prices low enough to compete.

Back in November, Ford's then-CEO Mark Fields said the company would move forward with a plan to build the Focus in Mexico. But under new CEO Jim Hackett, that plan has changed again.

When Fords shifts production of the Focus overseas after mid-2018, it will also convert its Michigan plant to produce the Ranger pickup truck in late 2018 and the Bronco midsize SUV in 2020.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.