Ford Motor Co.’s third-quarter net income rose 68 percent as it grabbed a bigger share of the U.S. auto market and buyers paid more for its highly-rated cars and trucks.

It was Ford’s sixth straight quarterly profit. The automaker says it earned $1.7 billion, or 43 cents per share, beating Wall Street estimates. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had forecast earnings of 38 cents per share. Those estimates typically exclude one-time items.

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Ford CEO Alan Mulally telling WWJ live this morning why his company is doing so well right now.

“The real highlight is the strength of our product line and how the consumers in the United States and around the world just absolutely love this full family of Ford vehicles that are best in class. And then, of course, financially to be able to be operating profitably and growing and generating free cash flow, we are able to pay down some more debt and improve our balance sheet,” Mulally said during WWJ’s morning show with Joe Donovan and Roberta Jasina.

Before the automaker’s earnings were released Tuesday morning, Ford’s President of the Americas — Mark Fields — said he expected another strong showing.

“That would be another evidence point that the economy and consumers are slowly coming back and feeling better about, you know, their own situation and feeling better about … buying a new vehicle,” Fields told WWJ Newsradio 950.

Speaking live on WWJ Newsradio 950, auto analyst John McElroy said he was floored by Ford’s figures.

“These are astonishing numbers. I mean, I keep pointing out that the North American market is still very, very weak, Europe’s in trouble, and that’s where most of Ford’s sales come from,” McElroy said.

Ford earned $1 billion, or 26 cents per share, in the same quarter a year earlier.

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In related news, Ford plans to hire 1,200 new workers in Michigan by 2013 if the state approves tax incentives.

The Dearborn-based automaker announced Monday afternoon it will invest $850 million in several Detroit-area plants, including including Van Dyke Transmission, Sterling Axle, Livonia Transmission and Dearborn Truck, to build its new six-speed transmissions and improve facilities. Ford plans to hire 900 hourly manufacturing workers and 300 engineers and other salaried workers.

By 2013, 100 percent of Ford vehicles will incorporate a six-speed transmission as part of the company’s commitment to leadership in fuel economy performance in all vehicle segments.

“Fuel economy and technology are consumers’ biggest priorities – and we have made them Ford’s as well,” said Fields. “We are pleased to work with state and local government leaders to find new ways to work together, invest in our people as well as Ford facilities, further improve our competitiveness and secure jobs in Michigan.”

The new investment comes on top of Ford’s $950 million transformation Michigan Assembly Plant from a truck plant to a car plant which will begin producing the new Focus next year. Ford also hired 1,200 workers earlier this year to make its new Explorer SUV in Chicago.

“This is a great day for Ford and for Michigan,” Governor Jennifer Granholm said. “Thanks in part to our aggressive economic development efforts, Ford has chosen Michigan to play a continuing role in the manufacture of its cleaner and greener vehicles, keeping 28,000 jobs in the state.”

The Michigan Economic Growth Authority board is scheduled to consider Ford’s tax credits Tuesday. Valued at $400 million over the next 15 years, the package would replace three existing MEGA incentive packages for Ford. Local incentives are also expected to be approved in support of Ford’s expansion efforts.

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© MMX WWJ Radio, All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to his report.