The pre-production models had been trucked from Kentucky to the West Coast in the last month, before the local plant and its roughly 5,000 workers ramped up to full production.
The new Escapes, which come in three trims, including two turbocharged EcoBoost engines, started shipping to showrooms last week.
“They are on rail cars around the country,” said Kate Pearce, a marketing manager with Ford Motor Co. About 20 journalists — from publications including Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Kelley Blue Book and Insider Louisville — had taken the new models for a spin down a planned course on roads including the famous Mulholland Drive and the Pacific Coast Highway.
After an introduction to the new vehicles and presentations about updated interiors and exteriors, journalists got to drive 1.5-liter and 2-liter EcoBoost engine models on a suggested 40-mile course. At predetermined stops, such as Malibu Bluffs Park, with the Pacific glistening nearby, drivers could switch vehicles or ask one of the Ford employees to take the wheel and talk about the Escape’s power, fuel economy, appearance and tech. A new smartphone app, to be launched at the end of the month, will provide information about fuel level and tire pressure and will allow owners to start the car remotely, or even to schedule a daily start time.
While the Ford F-150 is Ford’s best-selling vehicle, the Escape is the company’s best-selling utility vehicle. Last year, Ford booked a record number of sales, exceeding 300,000. It was the seventh year of year-over-year growth.
Ford said it sees growth in the small SUV segment — which includes competitors such as the Honda CRV and the Toyota RAV4 — to continue until 2025, primarily because the interests of the two dominant car-buying generations are coalescing.
Baby boomers are stepping down from larger SUVs as their children have left the home. They still like SUVs, but they don’t need as much space and they want easier entry and exit, said Kevin Schad, Escape brand marketing manager.
“They’re landing squarely on the small utility segment,” Schad said.
Meanwhile, the oldest millennials, the boomers’ children, have reached their mid-to-late 30s, and they’re buying homes, building families and purchasing vehicles with more cargo capacity. And, Schad said, the millennials grew up in the large SUVs of their parents.
“They love these vehicles,” Schad said.
Those two generations will continue to dominate car purchases until 2025, Schad said, and their overlapping interest have “just absolutely amplified the segment.”
Automakers have responded: When the segment was launched in 2000, it had only six entrants. Now, automakers are offering 21 small SUVs.
“It’s really really proven fertile ground for the industry,” Schad said.
The Escape is in a tight market share battle with the CRV and RAV-4. Last year, the Escape ranked third, but through the first quarter it ranked second. When the new Escape hits showroom floors, all three vehicles will have undergone a model changeover within a few months
Effect of cheap gas?
SUV demand also has been boosted by low gasoline prices, but Schad and Pearce said they expect high demand for small SUVs to continue even if gas prices rise, which, the U.S. government said, won’t happen until after 2017.
Boomers and millennials are buying small SUVs because the vehicles fit their lifestyles, Schad said, and that will continue regardless of the gas price.
And, Pearce said, new SUVs, such as the Escape, have much better fuel economy than the big SUVs that were popular a decade ago. All of the Escape models get combined city/highway mileage in the mid-20s.
SUV buyers today no longer have to trade fuel economy for capability, Pearce said.
That’s good news for Ford’s roughly 5,000 workers at the Louisville Assembly Plant, who are represented by the United Auto Workers Local 862.
High demand for the Escape has kept the Louisville Assembly Plant busy. At full capacity, local workers make a new Escape every 49 seconds.
“We’re building every vehicle we can,” Pearce said.