Escape offers fresh sales path

New name, more kit, sharper pricing – is this enough to reinstate Ford’s compact sports utility as a major player?

SPORTS utility sales are running hot – but, in the compact category, Ford hasn’t been.

So how much heat did it feel simply for fronting with a model whose model name associated with a sounds-like, spelled different word that describes ladies of a certain age who prowl for younger male fun?

That neither generation of the car we’ve come to know as the Kuga – not the first offer that stayed for just 18 months nor the current body shape that took over in 2013 – has ever managed to ever achieve class-topping sales stardom suggests that some people just couldn’t live with THAT name.

And now they don’t have to. Big news of the model’s mid-life facelift is a change of identity, with reversion to a monicker shelved after the Ford-Mazda marriage came to an end in 2011.

So from now on, the car developed off the same platform as the current Focus will be called – not just here but all around the world – the Escape. And Kuga? That’s apparently been sealed into the same deeply-buried vault that holds other ‘Edsel’, ‘Pinto’ and ‘Consul’.

The mid-life revision of this model ticks off more than just a badge swap. There’s also a new nose treatment, a revised interior and a technology upgrade - inclusion across all models of the Sync3 entertainment suite with sat nav, voice command and enhanced connectivity is the priority feature but 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 (it now works at up to 50kmh) and the Titanium also gets lane-assist which physically steers the car for you if you stray over the white lines.

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

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.

Also announced for Escape is a five star crash test score from the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme.

Should this have seemed a safe bet given that the pre-facelift version had already been meted that top-line result by the local market-approved safety agency (indeed, so had the previous Kuga)?

Apparently, yes, because the test standard has increased: While the car in Escape format has the same structural integrity as its predecessor and just as many airbags – seven in all including side-curtain air-bags that cover all seating positions and a driver’s-knee air-bag, too – latterly the top score has only gone to models that add in a knee-bag as well. Escape doesn’t have one of those so there was thought it might lose some ground as result. Evidently, it has not.

Was Ford expecting any different? Interestingly, even though the update result was only made official today by ANCAP’s local market representative body, the New Zealand Automobile Association, Ford NZ in a media statement sent out on December 20 was referring to Escape as a ‘five star’ car.

For its part, the NZ AA has applauded the model for providing a good range of safety features, city its emergency brake assist, electronic stabiility control, autonomous emergency braking and attention assist as particularly important features. AA Motoring Services general manager Stella Stocks called Escape “ a well-rounded car for everyday use” and offered that it had performed “exceptionally well in the overall crash tests, with solid cabin integrity and good pedestrian protection, which means in terms of safety it stands up well.”

Ford has not yet offered comment on the score. The pre-Christmas comment attributed to the Auckland-domiciled local operation’s managing director, Simon Rutherford, simply emphasised how thrilled he was about the car.

“More importantly, our customers will be thrilled too. With stunning new design inside and out, smart technologies, fuel-efficient yet powerful engines, and five-star safety, it’s a vehicle that will be so many things for our customers.”

What positive marketing impact might the name change alone bring? Clearly, they will be hoping for some level of lift: Ford here (and elsewhere) has been bogged down in defence of the Kuga nameplate. It will have noted that the class in which the car contends has become both a goldmine but also a huge battleground – there are more contenders here, now, than this vehicle faced when it arrived three years ago.

In respect to these matters, spokesman Tom Clancy told MotoringNetwork: "On sales projections, there's no reason why it can't be number one in the segment. Ford NZ and our dealer network are all very confident and very enthused in the new Escape. And our customers will be too. 

"With Kuga we incrementally improved the vehicle with added tech, features and design but it was mostly just catching up with competitors. With new Escape, we now have, at launch, a host of new features including SYNC3, fresh new design inside and out, and yes, ANCAP 5 Star Safety - and all with great pricing."

For all those reasons, he adds, "it will be difficult to attribute any uplift in sales to the name change alone." 

The timing of Ford NZ’s Escape plan might seem a touch messy; generally brands avoid launching new product during the Christmas break. The local office agrees the timing has not been ideal. Clancy says it simply down to the logistics of sourcing a vehicle from Europe.

Perception that the NZ release has occured around two months after Australia's is erroneous, however. Yes, our neighbour did stage a media event for the car in November, but that occasion involved just four vehicles shipping in ahead of public launch. In fact, Clancy explains, the actual Australian market onsale is in tune with our own. "They are getting their Escapes at the same time."

Australian media colleagues say that, as before, the 2.0-litre petrol provides the best option in respect to economy and performance, pointing out that the Escape demands decent power to overcome its chunky 1700kg-plus kerb weight.