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Ford comes from behind in China to stun Japanese rivals

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) is poised to overtake its Japanese rivals on the top seller's list in China as Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) struggle to regain market share following a flare up in anti-Japanese sentiment a year ago.

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For much of the past decade, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker has languished some way behind Japanese brands and South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz). And it has lagged a long way behind General Motors Co(GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) in China.

That's mainly because of Ford's late foray into China and the subsequent, conservative approach it has taken in an auto market that became the world's biggest in 2009.

Ford is fighting to change that picture and appears likely to sell more vehicles in China this year than two of its main Japanese rivals - Toyota and Honda. Its China sales are also zooming close to that of Nissan Motor Co (7201.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz).

Ford is likely to sell more than 900,000 vehicles, including passenger cars and commercial vehicles, in China this year thanks to its beefed-up product lineup, said a company official who spoke on condition of anonymity. New in the showroom since last year are a couple of small sport-utility vehicles and the redesigned Focus car.

It has also just launched the redesigned Mondeo car, a China version of the car marketed in North America as the Fusion.

The American automaker sold 551,738 vehicles during the first eight months of the year, up 50 percent. The company is expected to release its September China sales data as early as on Wednesday.

"We should be able to sell more than 900,000 vehicles, possibly close to a million in China this year," the Ford official said.

Toyota is targeting to sell about 900,000 vehicles and Honda about 750,000 in China this year. China-based spokespeople at the two firms said they were on track to meet those objectives.

Nissan is aiming to sell 1.25 million vehicles, but a Nissan company executive speaking on condition of anonymity said last month the company was "stretching to achieve" that goal.

The Japanese carmakers have, however, recorded a sharp rise in year-on-year sales last month partly due to the low base from last September, when Japan's decision to nationalize disputed islands in the East China Sea sparked anti-Japan sentiment among Chinese consumers.

GM AND VW DOMINATE

Ford and the Japanese carmakers are still no match for the likes of General Motors and Volkswagen.

GM Group expects to sell more than 3 million vehicles in China this year. Its volume in China is forecast to grow 8 percent to 10 percent over last year, when the U.S. group sold a total of 2.84 million vehicles.

According to consulting firm LMC Automotive, the Volkswagen Group is forecast to sell about 3.2 million vehicles this year in China, up from 2.8 million vehicles it sold in 2012.

LMC says Hyundai Group's sales in China this year should reach 1.64 million vehicles, up from 1.4 million last year.

During the first nine months of this year, Toyota sold a total of about 636,700 vehicles, down 0.5 percent from a year earlier, Honda sold 497,261 vehicles, up 5.8 percent, and Nissan sold 885,700 vehicles, up 0.2 percent.

Since Ford began an aggressive push to overhaul and beef up its product lineup for China over the past two years, "sales have been growing in leaps and bounds", said Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consulting firm Automotive Foresight.

That momentum should not only remain intact for the rest of this year but should become "even stronger" next year and beyond, Zhang said, adding Ford expected to start production at a major assembly plant in the eastern city of Hangzhou around 2015.

(Reporting By Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Kazunori Takada and Jeremy Laurence)

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