DETROIT — DETROIT -- A year ago, Ford Motor Co.'s sprawling assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., which builds the Focus compact car, was on the chopping block as part of the automaker's restructuring plan, putting the lives of its 3,000 workers in flux.
But today -- as the struggling U.S. economy has consumers on the hunt for affordable, fuel-efficient cars -- the 56-year-old plant and its workers are running a full-out effort: two nine-hour shifts on weekdays, plus some Saturdays to keep up with increasing demand for the redesigned Focus.
Focus sales are up 23 percent overall through March -- and are now exceeding even Ford's expectations. In March, retail sales of the Focus, which exclude discounted fleet sales to rental-car companies and other bulk deliveries, were up 35 percent.
Now the new Focus, which is Ford's only small car for sale in the United States, is the third-best-selling small car in America, behind the No. 1 Honda Civic and No. 2 Toyota Corolla.
"I think it's phenomenal," said Brian Scott, 33, a quality leader on the trim line at Wayne plant. He has worked for Ford for 14 years.
"We've been pumping these cars out like crazy," he said as a truck whizzed by with parts for the line, which is building about 56 cars an hour. "Our morale is so high right now."
Ford launched the new Focus in October with a new exterior, a substantially upgraded interior and the optional Sync, Ford's hands-free communications and entertainment technology, developed with Microsoft Corp.
In all, Focus production is expected to be up 28 percent this year, compared with a year ago, said Dale Wishnousky, the plant manager at Wayne. That's putting workers there in a mood some haven't enjoyed for a while at Ford, which has lost $15.3 billion during the past two years.
With the U.S. economy on the brink of a recession, consumers have been hunting for cars like the Focus, which starts at $14,395 and gets 28 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving.
Overall, Ford Motor Co. sales are slumping along with the rest of the industry: Total U.S. vehicle sales have fallen 8 percent, and Ford sales are down 9 percent. But sales of small cars are up 3.4 percent this year, with the Focus leading the charge.
The Focus pulled ahead of the Chevrolet Cobalt last month for that position. The Cobalt is still within 1,000 sales of the Focus this year, but Cobalt sales have been increasing at about half the pace of the Focus. Through March, the Cobalt was up 14.5 percent.
The optional Sync technology has been one of the huge drawing points for the Focus. In marketing materials on the Focus Web site, Ford pitches the car this way: "35 mpg. Six air bags. Fully equipped at $17,000. And it talks."
Jim Sierzega, who works in the area that prepares vehicles for delivery, said that about 40 percent of the Focus cars are ordered with Sync.
Ford's reputation for increasing quality and standard safety features may be factors, too.
The Ford Focus is one of the early vehicles to be developed under the Global Product Development System being put in place by Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president for global product development. Ford's internal data show that the quality is 13 percent better than the previous model.
Ford says 45 percent of Focus customers are new to the Ford brand and that the car is capturing the attention of younger buyers. The percentage of Focus buyers in the 16- to 35-year-old range has grown from 26 percent last year to 30 percent this year.
While Ford has not added a third shift to accommodate increasing demand of the Focus, Wishnousky said the plant will be on "maximum overtime" for its two shifts, in an effort to crank out enough cars to meet demand.
"I don't know that we anticipated that," Wishnousky said.