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China helps drive the Ford Focus to No. 1 spot

A 2013 Ford Focus
Getty Images
A 2013 Ford Focus

In a sign of Ford's growing strength and popularity in China, the automaker said that country's demand for the Focus helped make the model the top-selling car in the world in the first quarter.

Focus sales rose 153 percent in China, to a total of 104,065 units, from January through March. The number represents 36 percent of all Focus sales in the period. The model's success, both in China and worldwide, is further proof that Alan Mulally's One Ford strategy is not only working but driving stronger sales and profits.

Percentage of total Ford Focus sales

China: 35%
Europe: 28%
U.S.: 21%
S. America: 13%
Southeast Asia: 3%
Source: Ford

Under Mulally, the company has expanded in China while paring the number of car platforms it uses globally.

"The Focus is popular here right now in large part because Ford is doing a very good job of tailoring it to Chinese tastes," said James Chao, IHS Automotive's director of automotive analysis for Asia Pacific. Ford has added leather and more chrome to the Focus, for example, two style accents popular with Chinese buyers, he noted.

(Read more: Auto job boom rolls on as Ford expands, again)

Focus gaining on Japanese brands

The falling popularity of Japanese cars has also boosted the Focus. Though some of that decline is related to fallout from an ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan, another factor is Ford's performance in safety tests.

"Ford has a growing reputation for safety here in China," said Chao. "That reputation is helping Ford win over Chinese buyers when compared to Japanese models."

(Read more: Ford CEO brushes off China slowdown fears)

The rapidly growing market in western China is an additional spur for Ford. Last year, the company began producing the Focus at one of its two plants in Chongqing.

Toyota's Camry is the top-selling car in the U.S. At an investor conference in New York on Tuesday, a top Toyota executive said the company intends to keep that designation.

(Read more: Ford, my favorite auto company: Cramer)

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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