DETROIT -- The Ford Mustang, after more than 50 years as a top-selling sports car in the United States, hopes to reach global domination with the help of Chinese buyers.
So far, it seems to be working. Ford is reporting 33 percent sales growth in China so far this year, with three months remaining.
Since Mustang's global launch in 2015, the iconic muscle car has become the bestselling sports car in the world's fastest-growing car market. In 2016, sales rose 74 percent –– from 4,076 to 7,107.
The China version of Mustang carried a higher starting price of $60,245 in 2017, or more than twice the U.S. starting price of $25,585 for the 2018 model. The difference is largely due to import tariffs and other taxes.
Chinese buyers purchased 3,114 Mustangs from January through September this year. The new 2018 Ford Mustang doesn't ship overseas until next year.
"We had about 100 members of Mustang clubs in China when they had to import cars on their own," said Mark Schaller, marketing manager for Mustang. "Now there are more than 3,000 members of Mustang clubs in China."
The international appetite does not surprise Rich Homan, senior vehicle evaluation editor at Kelley Blue Book.
"I remember walking through Hyundai's design studio in Seoul decades ago, and all of the young Korean designers had images of their favorite sports cars plastered around their cubes to give them inspiration," Homan said. "By far, the Ford Mustangs outnumbered every other shape from around the world."
Global sales of the Ford Mustang rose 6 percent from 141,953 in 2015 to 150,431 in 2016. The Dearborn-based automaker is hoping to continue the momentum.
Mustang also has become the best-selling sports car in Australia. Previously, Australians rebuilt the car on their own to put the steering wheel on the right. In 2017, the Mustang in Australia started at $38,804 or about 52 percent more than in the 2018 Mustang in the U.S.
Ford Australia reported sales of 6,208 Mustangs in 2016, a total surpassed by 507 in just the first eight months of 2017.
More than 98,000 cars shipped out of the U.S. during the first year after the global launch. The 2017 data are not available yet.
Sports cars are a segment that requires constant attention, which is precisely why Ford is coming out with a freshened Mustang so quickly.
Designers took everything learned from 2015, when Ford consciously decided to make the car available around the world, and then tightened and enhanced every aspect. Carl Widmann, chief program engineer at Mustang, said consumers will notice changes to torque, steering and weight distribution.
"Visual appearance is king. So are aerodynamics and styling," Widmann said. "There's a performance sound, too. Some of our export customers are coming out of BMW and into Mustang for the first time."
The 2018 Mustang is being shipped from the assembly plant in Flat Rock, Mich. to U.S. dealerships now. The plant has made more than 300,000 Mustangs to sell globally, Schaller said. An estimated 80 percent of the buyers are male and the demographic is growing slowly to include more women and millennials.
Ford has expanded Mustang to 146 countries, with six including Brazil added this year. Antarctica is the only continent where Mustang isn't sold.
Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger remain formidable rivals on the domestic front. The Camaro RS went on sale in China this year.
"It was brilliant for Ford to make Mustang a global player," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Autotrader. "Now it's the No. 1 selling performance car in Germany, home to BMW and Porsche. Ford spent 50 years building up equity in the name and then unleashed it."
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