Ford Escape: Compact start to big SUV push

Return of the Escape badge – albeit attaching to a refresh of a familiar car – allows Ford to launch a strategy to raise sales of models that have sat in the shadow of the all-dominant Ranger.


INTENT to raise Ford’s status in the booming sports utility sector starts with the just-launched Escape and will further progress when the larger Edge arrives next year, but neither is likely dislodge the Ranger utility as the brand’s top selling vehicle.

This admission today from Ford New Zealand spokesmen, speaking at the media preview of the Escape, a renamed and refreshed edition of what has until now been sold as the Kuga.

Corporate affairs spokesman Tom Clancy and Jeremy Nash (pictured), who as the head of marketing for light commercials and sports utilities can speak for the ute and crossover models, say Ranger’s easy dominance has been given in-house consideration.

Yet even though Ford intends for Escape to assume marketing priority this year, there is no intent to rein in the runaway favourite traydeck. Instead, the idea is to enjoy Ranger’s wild ride as long as it lasts, while also working to life the status of models that have become overshadowed.

“We recognise that Ranger has achieved a level of our mix ... that requires our attention,” said Clancy.

However, there’s certainly no intent to hex the one-tonner’s remarkable run.

“Ranger has been so successful a plan has been put in place to address our model balance – there is a strategic plan to balance out the portfolio, but we want to bring other models up – it’s not going to be at expense of Ranger,” Clancy affirmed.

“It is an astounding success and we are delighted about that, we’re certainly not going to do anything to stop that.”

Nash agreed: “From an internal marketing perspective, Ranger is probably not our lead car, that’s Escape – but from a volume perspective, Ranger will probably continue to be our No.1.”

Boosting Escape makes sense. 2016 was the year in which sports utility vehicles began to outsell regular cars – a historic swingshift the Ford men doubt will reverse.

Achieving the target of 140-160 monthly Escape sales will see that car gain twice the penetration of the Kuga, yet that elevate rate is nothing compared to Ranger's monthly reap. The ute began this year maintaining its 2016 monthly average sales count of 750 units. So, at most, Escape can be the top-selling passenger car, but second-best for favouritism.

Ironically, some of those Rangers are undoubtedly being bought as SUV-substitutes, a win-lose for Ford, because while every registration counts, it doesn’t help the SUV push, because utes are categorised as commercial vehicles.

Nash says Ford isn’t uncomfortable with Ranger’s amazing success – which hit new heights last year when, with more than 8000 registrations, it not only scored as the country’s best-selling ute but was also our top-selling vehicle, a first-time feat for this model type.

However, he does concede that a rig that achieved 54 percent of all Ford volume in 2016 and, in some months last year, was accounting for 70 percent of its sales, has brought pros and cons.

Although Ford also gained a year-on-year improvement in passenger sales, the gain was slight. And there is no doubt other models in the Ford family have lost ground due to the Ranger effect.

Intention to elevate Escape to become the brand’s top-selling SUV in 2017 is not so hard when Territory supply is almost exhausted and the teensy EcoSport remains a family embarrassment, with still no word on this India-supplied model will achieve the major update the UK has been enjoying for more than a year. More of a challenge is to also see Escape achieve top five status within its category, a big improvement over Kuga which ended the year in ninth.

At the same token, there’s every expectation that Ranger on current trend is in the box seat for 2017 and could well continue as the dominant Ford vehicle for the rest of a model cycle that is conjected to end in 2020.

Ford axing the Kuga tag in favour of Escape, a name that was abdicated almost five years ago, will be a plus point for the new SUV, Nash contends. Brand argument that this is a ‘global change' doesn’t wash, however, given it will keep on as a Kuga in Europe and the UK.

The old Escape, around for a decade, was the Blue Oval’s version of Hiroshima’s Tribute but Ford doubts people will misconstrue this name change as a signal of renewed association with Mazda.

As a big mid-life change, the update also introduces sharper exterior design, restyled interior, revised pricing and a new front-wheel-drive version.

The car continues over three trim levels – Ambiente, Trend and Titanium – the first with a 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol that avails in front-drive format, the second with that mill or the option of a 2.0-litre in 178kW/345Nm petrol and 132kW/400Nm diesel and the last purely with the larger capacity powerplants, all married to a six-speed automatic transmission, now with paddle shifts. The 2.0-litre models, as before, are all-wheel-drive.

But now the family has grown from six to seven choices, with addition of a front-drive automatic medium spec petrol; a sought-after specification that, remarkably, Kuga never covered. Prices range from $37,990 through to $54,990.

The styling changes are extensive enough to bring it into line with the street-suited Edge. Escape's larger grille and new light treatments are a match for those on the Canada-sourced car and lend a more interesting and bolder appearance overall.

There’s also a revised interior and a technology upgrade - inclusion across all models of the Sync3 entertainment suite Ford SYNC, which can read text messages aloud and offers voice control functionality and also supports Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, is the priority feature. It also now has an electronic park brake, an improved self-park feature and improvements to its driver assistance technologies.

The Active City Braking functionality that now works at up to 50kmh, though in a demonstration the brand suggested certainty of stopping tops out at 30kmh and lane-assist which physically steers the car for you if you stray over the white lines is standard to Trend and Titanium.

Ford claims a modest economy improvement for the staple 2.0-litre petrol, effected by implementation of another new feature, auto stop/start.

In determining that Escape deserved the same five-star crash test result meted the Kuga, the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme picked up result determined by a Euro NCAP tests, just as they did with the Mustang.

However, the family runabout did a lot better because, unlike the American sports coupe, it has auto-stopping (AEB). The New Zealand Automobile Association, which speaks for ANCAP locally, has applauded the model for providing this, electronic stability control and attention assist.

Today’s drive took the car through the Melbourne motorway network out to the Yarra Valley, where motorways were swapped for country roads, some gravelled.

It came across as being decent to drive, but its age - and Kuga background - unescapably colours the picture. There has been rapid change in the category since this car first emerged and, if measured against the new Volkswagen Tiguan, the current Mazda CX-5 (let alone the new one, here very soon) and some others, it might no longer seem the most engaging in its class, in some ways more SUV than crossover despite the hatchback underpinning.

Some of this comes from the way it is set up. The big wheels offer plenty of grip (and look good) but in addition to adding elevation Ford has also provided a softer ride chataceristic than it provisions the Focus. It is stable through bends and on metal but, despite the body roll system, not the most agile of its kind, with some lean when pushed. That’s not necessarily bad; because the suspension has been set up for composed, comfortable ride it rides bumps and ruts quite well. All the same, it's not the class-leader for agility..

The power steering is now fully electric and while it saves on running costs, it has sacrificed feedback. That the manual gearbox isn’t coming here is not loss; it’s a bit vague and rubbery, the least pleasant to use in any Ford I’ve driven for a while. The auto no longer has that silly switch on the gearstick that was supposed to effect manual changes; now there’s a ‘sport’ setting that enlivens its action.

More customers in this category are going back to petrol, yet though Ford’s units are zesty and sound good, the diesel still offers a better combination of power, mid-range torque and efficiency. It’s also smooth and noise is well isolated from the cabin.

Escape is one of the last to retain a somewhat high-set driving position; most newer cars in the class tend to provide a more car-like seating placement without affecticting the 'command' driving feel that is so necessary with ths kind of vehicle.

Ford's seat height gives you a useful view over traffic ahead but it also lends impression you are sitting 'on' rather than fully 'in' the car. And the relationship with the gearshift seemed slightly awkward, too, for this tall driver.

It's not too bad, because visibility is good, which will be a bonus for urnban exploring. Indeed, that's still a plus for this car: Though trhe nose seems a bit longer, it is still a dimensionally pert car, perfect for threading through traffic and parking. the latter being made all the easy thanks to its self-guilding feature.

Passenger space is good for four adults but the fifth middle seat is probably going to be a bit of a squeeze. Headroom and legroom are reasonable all round.

Ford has not made clear how long Escape will be with us, but potentially it should remain until 2020, by which time the brand will have more vehicles of this kind in its portfolio.