The Ford Escape, an aging vehicle that looks 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 vehicles this year, making it the fifth-best-selling vehicle in America and the top SUV. Decent interior room and cargo space make it popular among soccer moms, while its masculine rectangular SUV design has attracted male buyers.
Now Ford plans to upset the apple cart with a complete ground-up redesign of the Escape that improves power and fuel economy.
Ford unveiled the new Escape at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday.
Some shoppers might be turned off by the new look, but other buyers may be attracted by fresh design and the car's features, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with auto information company TrueCar.com.
"It is certainly a leap," Toprak said, "but I believe Ford is trying 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 would still have the "one-size-fits-all proposition" that has made the current Escape so popular.
Jason Sprawka, who manages marketing of the Escape at Ford, 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. 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.
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; other vehicles that share the platform include 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," Sprawka said.
Ford plans three engine options. It expects two turbocharged, four-cylinder engines to account for about 90 percent of sales. The smaller will be a 1.6-liter engine that will have about 170 horsepower and get more than 30 miles per gallon in highway driving. Ford will also offer a 2-liter four-banger that generates 240 horsepower, giving it the same output of many six-cylinder engines on the market. 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 the rear gate with a wave of a foot beneath the bumper.
"One out of every six vehicles sold today is a small SUV, so the new Escape is an extremely important vehicle for us," said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. "The nameplate has great consumer awareness, and we need to meet those expectations."
Ford has not talked about pricing except to say that it will be similar to that of the current model, which sells for about $25,000. The vehicle will be built in Louisville, Ky., and begin being sold in the spring.
The Escape will no longer have a hybrid version. The hybrid version has made up as much as 13 percent of the vehicle's annual sales, according to TrueCar data. The Escape has historically been the top-selling domestic hybrid.
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 vehicle, 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 Edmunds.com. "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."