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Ford has a lot riding on the Detroit auto show this year

Key Points
  • Detroit will give the public its first look at redesigns of two of the automaker's most important models: the Explorer and Mustang Shelby GT 500.
  • It's not just about sales for the 116-year old car company.
  • In Detroit, the company is showcasing two of its star performers that personify its new focus on trucks, SUVs and muscle cars.
The new 2020 Ford Explorer SUV is revealed at Ford Field on January 9, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

Few automakers exhibiting at the Detroit auto show, which kicks off Sunday in Detroit, have more riding on this year's show than Ford.

The company, which is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter earnings Jan. 23, is in the midst of an $11 billion turnaround under CEO Jim Hackett. Investors haven't been pleased so far. Its shares skidded 39 percent last year, falling below $10 a share for the first time since 2012, as its profits plunged 27 percent to $3.8 billion during the first nine months last year from the same time the previous year. And it announced Thursday a massive restructuring in Europe that will cut thousands of jobs there and discontinue several vehicle lines that have been losing money. 

Detroit will give the public its first look at redesigns of two of the automaker's most important models: the Explorer and Mustang Shelby GT 500. Ford launched a fully redesigned Explorer last week, but most of the public will get their first glimpse of it at the North American International Auto Show. Ford's also unveiling a new design for its classic Mustang Shelby GT500, a supercharged version of the sports car that carries the high-profile Shelby brand.

"Ford's putting a lot more stock in their Mustang and Explorer which are their more iconic vehicles," Julie Blackley, communications manager for automotive analytics firm iSeeCars, told CNBC. Iconic may be underselling it. The Mustang is the best selling sports car of all time, while Explorer is the industry's top-selling SUV nameplate in history.

It's not just about sales for the 116-year old car company. In Detroit, the company is showcasing two of its star performers that personify its new strategy, revealed to much surprise and dismay last year. The company is planning to phase out all traditional cars, except the Mustang, producing only SUVs and trucks.

"This is Ford broadcasting its identity," Jeremy Acevedo, manager of industry analysis at Edmunds, said. The company, as he sees it, is making an "all-in bet on their trucks and SUVs."

Ford spent a lot of time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week talking about mobility, connected cities and other high-tech advancements to ease congestion and pollution. For now, it's the big trucks, SUVs and muscle cars that's driving sales.

Sales of the company's popular F-150 pickup have helped prop up profits. To Acevedo, this isn't something standing between Ford and its vision of the company as a mobility market leader. Instead, he says the "immensely profitable" products — like the GT500, Explorer and F-150 — help finance the future.

"Ford talks about being a mobility company, furthering electrification and autonomy, but it's very pricey to do that," Acevedo told CNBC. "Counterintuitively, you're going to have these large SUVs, pickups and iconic sports cars paving the way for this mobile future."

Ford did not respond to requests for comment from CNBC.