In this city of inclusion, where dot-commers, fashionistas and bedraggled street denizens share the same fog-shrouded hillsides and stunning views, there’s one arrival that never felt welcome: a boxy, fuel-gulping sport-utility vehicle.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Ford chose the city of the Golden Gate as the place to introduce its completely transformed Escape compact crossover to America.
Far from the squared-off, purposeful SUV looks of the current generation, the body of the 2013 Escape is a sculptor’s playground of complex curves, creases and swooshes. It’s as if Ford Motor came to San Francisco seeking artistic validation.
Sure, the new model gets a boost in fuel economy, an entertaining leg-activated tailgate and rear seats that are easier to fold down. But those features pale compared with the change to a more car-like appearance. The looks carry over to the road, where Escape is a sweet driving experience — precise, quiet and lacking SUV sway, roll or clunkiness.
While artistic raves count, Ford executives make it clear they are intently focused on improving Escape’s share in one of the most crucial market segments in the auto industry. Compact crossovers, along with midsize sedans, are at the heart of the family vehicle market. Together, they account for about 30% of all new vehicle sales per year in the U.S.
Succession won’t be easy, given that the current Escape has done just fine, even with its aging looks.
Though on the way out, sales of the current model were 58,604 through the first quarter, up 4.7% compared with the same period a year ago, Autodata reports.
Just how much is at stake for Ford? From only 1.3% of the company’s overall sales in 2000, Escape commanded 12.3% last year, car research site Edmunds.com reports. About one of five compact crossovers sold in the U.S. last year were Escapes, although many have been carrying discounts lately.
“We’re trying to replace a product that is doing really well,” says Hau Thai-Tang, Ford engineering vice president. “We have really big shoes to fill.”
The decision to take what Thai-Tang terms a “revolutionary” step in the design of Escape partly reflects Ford’s preoccupation with designing models that can be sold in more markets around the world. Escape will be made in Louisville, Spain and China. In many foreign markets, “they want dynamic design,” he says.
V-6 option dropped for turbo-four
Ford is being just as bold when it comes to Escape’s engine choices: all four-cylinder powerplants; there’s no longer a V-6 option. The base is a 2.5-liter producing 168 horsepower. Then come two with turbochargers: a 1.6-liter with 173 horsepower and a 2-liter that puts out 237 horsepower. On a long drive over windy roads north of San Francisco, the smaller turbo felt adequate, the larger one substantially more confident on the highway.
The automaker is betting consumers will come to appreciate how its EcoBoost-branded turbo engines boost gas mileage at less of a price bump than that for a hybrid. At least buyers had better appreciate it, because Ford is ditching Escape’s hybrid model, which once showcased the automaker’s environmental commitment.
With a 33 miles per gallon rating for highway driving, the 1.6-liter turbo EcoBoost engine in a front-wheel-drive Escape outpaces the current hybrid front-wheel drive by a couple of miles per gallon. But its 23 mpg city rating falls well below the doomed hybrid’s 34 mpg.
The new Escape’s base model will start at $23,295 plus $895 in shipping, $200 less than the current model. The fanciest model, the Titanium, will go for $31,195. Deliveries start this spring.
Hands-free tailgate: Kick to open
The fully loaded Titanium comes with what is sure to be Escape’s most talked-about feature as standard equipment, the kick-activated liftgate. Waving an ankle under the rear bumper in a kicking motion opens the gate electrically. It can be closed the same way. It’s intended for people who, arms loaded with groceries or kids, can’t be fumbling for key fobs.
The feature seemed a little balky, but maybe it requires practice. Marketing Manager Jason Sprawka says two sensors activate the gate, both mounted on the center line of the vehicle. If you don’t kick your leg right down the middle, it might catch one sensor but not the other, and it won’t work. “You have to trip one, then the second,” he says. Sprawka says accumulated ice won’t interfere with its operation.
If that kind of innovation thrills some buyers, Ford is banking they’ll be equally drawn by other touches. For instance, folding down the rear seats to make way for cargo formerly involved having to pull off headrests and several other actions. Now, it’s a simple, one-touch operation, and the headrests fold down out of the way automatically.
The more upscale versions also come with the MyFord Touch infotainment system, front-and-rear temperature controls and an optional feature that aids in parallel parking.
But fancy stuff aside, it’s all about the looks.