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The Globe and Mail

Ford's Escape plan drives auto maker into the future

The 2013 Ford Escape.


'This is a very important car," whispers a Ford of Canada official, pointing conspiratorially to a muted green 2013 Escape compact crossover across the room. Make no mistake, the new Escape is the centre of attention at Ford.

"The Escape is a big deal," says Frank Davis, who oversees Ford's engineering work in North America.

To suggest the reinvented Escape is important to Ford is to say the Dreamliner is key to Boeing's future, or the iPad matters to Apple. Ford has sold some three million Escapes over the years, more than a quarter million alone in 2011. Last year, 44,248 Canadians bought an Escape. To put it another way, one of every six vehicles Ford of Canada sold in 2011 was an Escape. Overall, the Escape was the seventh best-selling vehicle in Canada.

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The Escape sells in high numbers because it's affordable ($21,499-$37,499) and functional and it's the kind of wagon Canadians need. That's why this Escape faces some 22 competitors – from the recently reinvented Honda CR-V to the soon-to-be reinvented Toyota RAV4, to the all-new Mazda CX-5, to the hot-selling Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Dodge Journey and more. This is where huge numbers of Canadians shop.

Nearly one in three light trucks sold in Canada is a compact SUV like the Escape. Since 2008, sales of compact SUVs are up 46 per cent and the smartest analysts think sales will keep growing as mid-size sedans fade. In the United States, sales of small SUVs and midsize cars accounted for 30 per cent of the total market in 2011. Why lump together mid-size sedans and the Escapes of the world? One or the other is the family vehicle of choice.

This version of the Escape is the best measure yet of CEO Alan Mulally's One Ford vision – one Ford for the world, including one model in each segment and one basic package of engineering for each platform, from which a handful of different models will spring.

In this case, the Escape is the last of 10 models using Ford's compact car platform – a platform Ford hopes is the basis for two million in total annual sales starting just about now. The Escape, known as the Kuga in Europe, was developed in Ford's Cologne, Germany, engineering centre along with the Ford Focus riding on a shared platform. The so-called Escape "top hat" above the basic mechanical bits and pieces was refined to suit North American tastes, however.

The success or failure of the Escape/Kuga around the world will tell you how far Ford has gone down the road to integrating its global operations, engineering in particular. How big is this? The Escape/Kuga will be built in three different plants – one in Germany, one in China and one in North America – each one using identical procedures and processes. The cost savings will be massive if Ford succeeds. Ford earned nearly $7-billion (U.S.) in operating profits last year, but if the Escape and all its siblings sell as expected, we'll know two things: The One Ford template is working and Ford should bank bigger profits going forward.

So the Escape says everything about Ford's present and future. The irony is that here in Richmond, Calif. – a gritty industrial suburb of Oakland, which itself is a rundown, crime-ridden relic of a once-great Industrialized America – fidgety members of the press are listening to engineers and marketers spin the 2013 Escape story while sitting under the roof of what was once a shining example of the "old" Ford's industrial might. Ford used to build Model As here, and later tanks for the American Second World War effort. No more, though. Here, surrounded by Ford's past, we're about to go driving in Ford's future.

For buyers, that future is all about a wagon with a stylish design, three different engine choices, best-in-class fuel economy, a comfortable and quiet cabin and a long list of features. The "hands-free" tailgate will get plenty of attention because it's a simple and useful idea: wag your foot under the rear end and hands-free, the tailgate opens as if by magic. We like it. More difficult to explain but perhaps more important is a list of do-dads with buzzwords like Active Park Assist, Intelligent 4WD (four-wheel drive), Torque Vector Control, Curve Control, MyFord Touch…

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The pieces seem to be in place, then. This Escape looks sleek, rides well, is offered with two EcoBoost four-cylinder engine choices (178 and 240 horsepower), has class-leading fuel economy and a long list of nifty features. Just as important, the Frank Davis-types at Ford insist they've done their due diligence on safety and quality. Let's hope for Ford's sake that's true.

Ford has taken a few hits on the quality front lately and the outgoing Escape does not top anyone's list of best-quality small SUVs (and it's not one of the seven recommended small SUVs from Consumer Reports). On top of that, the old Escape is not a Top Safety Pick of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Perhaps the best way to take the measure of One Ford is to see if and when the reinvented Escape is at the head of the small SUV class in quality and safety.

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