Ford Motor Co has acknowledged shipments of its all-new Fiesta are weeks behind schedule and apologized to still-waiting U.S. customers in a bid to protect one of its most important vehicle launches of the year.

The unusual move by Ford to apologize to the 2,300 U.S. customers with unfilled orders for the new subcompact and offer all of them $50 gift cards comes amid signs early Fiesta buyers were becoming increasingly frustrated by delays in vehicles reaching dealerships.

The delay in shipping the Fiesta ranks as one of the few recent operational setbacks for the automaker, which has been focused on reducing engineering costs and complexity with global vehicle programs under Chief Executive Alan Mulally.

Ford said its representatives would apologize to each U.S. Fiesta customer still waiting for the vehicle in phone calls from a call center.

Customers with outstanding orders will also be offered the $50 MasterCard gift cards as a token of our appreciation for their patience, Ford said in a notice to its dealers.

Notice of the program was sent to Ford dealers in recent days and confirmed by the automaker on Friday.

We have sent the gift cards, said Ford spokeswoman Angie Kozleski. Our focus is on customer satisfaction.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, has been on a roll for the past year, taking market share and increasing pricing with a number of well-received new vehicles, including the Taurus and Fusion sedans.

The Fiesta has already launched in Asia and Europe.

The car represents Ford's bid to win back a younger generation of consumers with the kind of fuel-efficient small car it stopped offering in the U.S. market earlier this decade.

The all-new vehicle, which Ford has promoted through an aggressive online campaign that has included Facebook and teams of volunteer test drivers, went into production at Ford's plant outside Mexico City in May.

Hurricane Alex hit the Mexican coast in June and disrupted some early planned shipments of the Fiesta, Ford has said.

The time needed to ship from the plant has complicated Ford's effort to supply dealers for the second month of Fiesta sales.

The average time needed to get a new car from the plant in Mexico to a Ford dealer in the United States is 23 days, a longer time than it takes to ship from U.S. factories, Ford U.S. sales analyst George Pipas said.

As of the end of June, Ford had only about 10 days supply of the new cars placed with dealers.

Major automakers consider an inventory of at least a month of sales to be closer to normal, even for a popular model, since exceptionally lean stock can cost sales.

In addition to the limited inventory, most of the Fiestas now with U.S. dealers are sedans rather than the hatchbacks that are proving popular with early buyers, dealers say.

As of Thursday, Ford had about 2,500 of the vehicles in stock. More cars are en route to dealers, Pipas said.

It's a popular product, he added. Right now we have limited inventory.

(Reporting by Kevin Krolicki; editing by Andre Grenon)