The Ford Escape is getting a long overdue makeover, ditching its boxy styling for a sleek look that Ford hopes will outshine competitors.
It has reason to be confident: Ford Explorer SUV sales are at a four-year high thanks to a similar redesign last year.
Ford will unveil the 2013 Escape at the Los Angeles Auto Show Wednesday. It goes on sale early next year. Pricing hasn't been announced, but it will likely start around $25,000.
The Escape's boxy profile was looking stale in a market full of newer, more aerodynamic competitors like the Chevrolet Equinox. The new Escape, which was designed in Europe, now has the elegant, tapered look of Ford's other new models, including the Fiesta subcompact and Edge crossover.
In addition to better styling, customers have been asking for more features and better fuel economy, said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. The more aerodynamic design, along with three updated engine choices, will help improve fuel economy from 28 mpg to as high as 33 mpg. Ford will discontinue the hybrid Escape, noting that its EcoBoost gas engines get better fuel economy than the 31 mpg on the current hybrid.
The Escape has some whiz-bang features, including a liftgate that opens when the driver makes a slight kicking motion under the bumper and a system that parallel parks the vehicle automatically with the press of a button.
The Escape will still tow up to 3,500 pounds, or enough for a one-ton boat on its trailer.
The Escape, which went on sale 11 years ago, had its last big makeover in 2008. Even then, critics said it was too dated and not efficient enough compared to newer rivals. Escape sales drooped and a rival, the Honda CR-V, outsold it until this year, when Japan's earthquake disrupted supplies and hurt Honda's sales. The Escape regained the lead.
Honda will push to recapture those sales with a new CR-V that will also be shown at the Los Angeles Auto Show and will go on sale by the end of this year.
Both Ford and Honda did all the right things with their redesigns, including improving fuel economy and styling and making their interiors more luxurious, said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with car information site Edmunds.com.
"I don't think either company will have a speck of problem selling all they can make in a decent economy," Krebs said.
While earlier versions of the Escape and CR-V were considered small SUVs, they're technically crossovers, which combine the roominess of SUVs with the nimbler handling and fuel efficiency of cars, since they're built on car platforms.
Crossover sales have been steadily rising for a decade. J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information firm, predicts they'll hit nearly 3 million sales per year by 2015, making crossovers the largest segment in the U.S. They'll outsell compact cars, the nearest segment, by 400,000.
While the CR-V, Escape and Toyota RAV4 have been perennial favorites, they're facing some competition. Sales of the Equinox, which was revamped in 2009, are up 45 percent for the year to 162,000, or less than 40,000 vehicles behind the top-ranked Escape. Several other models have chalked up sales of more than 100,000, including the Nissan Rogue and Kia Sorento.
Ford hopes the radical redesign will give the Escape the same momentum as the Explorer, which has a completely new look and a lower, more efficient car platform. Explorer sales were up 134 percent through October. The Explorer is by far the best seller in market for midsize SUVs, besting rivals like the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Richard Bazzy, who owns two Ford dealerships in suburban Pittsburgh, says Escape has been a big seller for him, but he's not sorry to see it go. He thinks customers will love the new version.
"I think this is one of the best looking cars we've ever produced," he said.