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Ford Motor Co. will launch its biggest advertising campaign in a decade this fall to introduce the automaker's new midsize sedans to American car buyers.

That makes a lot of sense.The Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique are the most important new cars Ford has brought to showrooms since the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable were introduced nine years ago. Ford spent a staggering $6 billion to develop them.

As scores of the nation's auto critics and editors gather here to drive the cars for the first time, Ford executives won't say exactly how much will be spent on the ad campaign.

But they say it could cost more than the $100 million Ford spent when it replaced its old, rear-wheel-drive sedans with the trend-setting, front-wheel-drive Taurus and Sable.

Ford expects to sell 260,000 Contours and Mystiques in 1995 from plants in Kansas City, Mo., and Cuautitlan, Mexico.

Who's going to buy them?

Ford expects the typical Contour customer will be 25 to 35 years old, married, making $55,000 a year.

Contour and Mystique will have to compete against about 28 similar size models that account for about 1.2 million car sales a year.

Ford Chairman Alex Trotman says they'll probably compete most directly against about 10 Japanese and domestic cars and lure many buyers from other Ford models.

Leasing has tied so many customers to Ford for at least two years, the company expects 40 percent of all Mystiques will be leased, and one in four Contours will be leased.

Ford doesn't expect Contour and Mystique to take a big whack out of Japanese auto sales, even though they're so similar in size and performance to the best-selling Japanese cars.

Saturn, General Motors' small car division, says about three out of every four of its customers owned an import. Ford says import owners will buy only about 15 percent of all Contours and Mystiques.

Ford executives have gone out of their way to say the Honda Accord won't be a major competitor with Contour and Mystique.

They grudgingly acknowledged that Accord is still the second-best selling car in America and is almost identical to the new Fords in length, width, weight and horsepower ratings for their base, four-cylinder engines.

They usually have dismissed Accord as overpriced and past its prime.

"It used to be that Honda was the rabbit" everyone chased, Trotman said. "But I wouldn't think that's true anymore. You ask our engineers, they'd say, `No.' "

To drive that point home, Ford provided the magazine and newspaper writers evaluating Contour and Mystique with several competing cars to drive and compare, including a Mazda 626, Nissan Altima, Pontiac Grand Am and even an Infiniti G20 - but no Accord.

"With the Taurus, we've made no bones about it, our eyes are set on (Toyota) Camry," said Ford Division general marketing manager Steve Lyons. "And from a midsize standpoint, our eyes are set on Altima."

The Altima?

Nissan sold 133,884 Altimas last year. Honda sold 330,030 Accords.

The Accord practically redefined the family sedan in the late '80s and it was the best-selling car in the country from 1989 to 1991 before being knocked off by Taurus.

When pressed to explain this strategy, Ford Division general manager Ross Roberts said the Contour and Mystique will "go head to head against Accord."

But Ford dealers are being urged to buy Altimas and 626s for customers to compare in test drives, not Accords.

They expect writers and editors evaluating the cars to leave here extremely impressed. European auto writers voted the European version of Contour their Car of the Year in '93.

"The strength of the car is driving dynamics," Lyons said. "I think when people get behind the wheel of this car it's a `Wow!' My job is to make sure they get behind the wheel."