Ford changes gears with new Escape SUV

Staff Writer

The Ford Escape – an aging vehicle that looks pretty much like the model that first debuted in 2000 – has quietly become one of the biggest success stories at Ford Motor Co.

The automaker has sold more than 200,000 of the small sport-utility this year, making it the 5th best selling vehicle in America and the top SUV. Of all Ford models, only its F-series pickup truck does better. Decent interior room and cargo space make the Escape a good mommy car. But its masculine rectangular SUV design also makes the vehicle popular among male buyers.

Now Ford plans to upset the apple cart, offering up a complete ground up redesign of the Ford that both improves power and fuel economy but transforms the five-passenger Escape into a sloping crossover with just a hint of minivan.



The new vehicle moves to Ford’s global C platform, a vehicle architecture that allows the automaker to build multiple styles of vehicles off the same structure. The Escape will be the 10th model off this platform, which among other vehicles is shared with the Ford Focus compact sedan. Ford executives say that 2 million vehicles will be built off this platform worldwide by mid-decade.

“It gives us great economies of scale to deliver value and features that our competition can’t match,” said Jason Sprawka, who manages marketing the Escape at Ford.

Some shoppers might be turned off by the new look, but that’s as likely as not to be made up by other buyers, attracted by fresh design and the car’s features, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with auto information company

“It is certainly a leap,” Toprak said, “but I believe Ford is trying is to be more like Hyundai in terms of design and styling with new models. They want to be more aggressive and to stand out among crowded product choices that consumers already have.”

He said the new model will still have the “one size fits all proposition” that has made the current Escape so popular.

Sprawka said Ford is hoping the new design will catch the attention of the millennial generation – the children of baby boomers who might not have grown up in a household that ever owned a Ford vehicle. And while the new styling might skew the Escape toward female buyers, he said the new model will still have the same towing capability and even more cargo space – features that tend to attract men.

Ford plans three engine options. Ford expects about 90% of sales to be one of two turbocharged, four-cylinder engines. The smaller will be a 1.6-liter engine that will have about 170 horsepower and reach into the low 30 miles per gallon in highway driving. Ford will also offer a larger 2.0 liter four-banger that generates 240 horsepower, giving it the same strength of many six-cylinder engines on the market now. But the base model Escape will be a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that comes in the current model, but with some improvements giving it slightly better fuel economy.

Other options include a parallel park assistance system that automatically steers the vehicle into the space, a blind-spot alert system that lets drivers know when there is another vehicle close by but out of their field of view, and a hands-free lift gate system that raises that rear gate with a wave of a foot beneath the bumper.

Ford has not talked about pricing except to say that it will be similar to that of current model, which sells for around $25,000. The vehicle will be built in Louisville, Ken., Ford plant and go on sale in spring 2012.

One thing the Escape won’t have is a hybrid version. Depending on the year, the hybrid version has made up as much as 13% of the vehicle’s sales, according to TrueCar data. The Escape is top-selling domestic-built hybrid historically.

Sprawka said that the fuel economy improvements in the new gasoline engines negated the efficiency advantage of the hybrid system without adding a hybrid premium to the price of the vehicle.

The new Escape will face stiff competition from Honda’s CR-V sport-utility, which also gets a remake for the new model year, and Toyota’s small SUV, the RAV4, which the industry expects will also have major changes sometime during the model year.

“Ford has a lot riding on the redesigned Escape,” said Ivan Drury, an analyst with auto information company “Consumers will be even more inclined to cross-shop Escape to CR-V and RAV4. If the new Escape follows in the footsteps of Ford’s latest launches as expected, then both Honda and Toyota better keep an eye on the competition.”