By DEE-ANN DURBIN
AP Auto Writer
DETROIT (AP) - The redesigned Ford Escape is a small SUV with big shoes to fill.
The Escape that goes on sale this month replaces an older version that helped invent the pint-sized SUV category in the early 2000s. It was a huge hit for Ford, with more than 2 million sales over the last decade, and it went toe-to-toe with popular models like the Honda CR-V, Jeep Liberty and Toyota RAV4.
If the new, sharper Escape does what Ford wants it to do _ unseat the CR-V _ it will sit atop one of the fastest growing vehicle segments.
Small SUVs are the only vehicles that have returned to pre-recession sales levels, says Erich Merkle, Ford's chief U.S. sales analyst. More than 1.8 million of them were sold in 2011, around 14 percent of all sales. Some analysts predict they'll climb to 18 percent by 2015. A decade ago, small utilities made up just 5 percent of sales.
Models like the Escape, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Rogue are popular because they fill the needs of many different buyers. Baby Boomers are downsizing from bigger models like the Ford Explorer now that their children are grown. Boomers' children are moving up from smaller cars as they start families. Newer, nicer SUVs, from the Kia Sorento to the luxury Range Rover Evoque, are drawing more buyers.
Small SUVs give buyers more cargo space but are built on car frames, making them easier and more fuel-efficient to drive than large SUVs that are built on truck frames.
"We expect this segment to go higher and higher," says Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with car-buying site Edmunds.com.
The 2013 Escape, which gets an official kickoff Wednesday at the Louisville, Ky., plant where it's made, looks nothing like the model that first went on sale 12 years ago. Gone is the boxy styling that looked dated alongside sleeker rivals like the CR-V. The new Escape, which was designed in Europe, has the sloped, aerodynamic roof and sharper lines of the Focus sedan on which it's based.
Terry Kidd, the owner of Kidd Ford Lincoln in Morrison, Tenn., says the redesign will draw customers who preferred the tapered look of brands like Honda, which ditched the boxier styling on the CR-V in 2007. Kidd has customers lined up to buy the first few Escapes that will arrive at his dealership this week.
The new styling appealed to Tim Wilson, 56, who ordered an Escape to replace his 2012 Ford Focus.
Wilson, a supervisor at a public transit control center in Minneapolis, liked the gas mileage on the Focus but found it too small to carry his art and construction supplies, and golf clubs. He also wants to go off-roading at his winter home in Arizona.
"I like the swept-back windshield and kinetic design," says Wilson. He chose cloth seats to save money, but sprung for high-end options that included blind-spot warning lights and a system that automatically parallel parks the vehicle.
Those features may not be enough to unseat the CR-V, which was the best-selling small SUV in the U.S. from 2006 through 2010. The Escape ranked No. 2 during most of those years, until it eclipsed the CR-V in 2011 with is best sales ever of more than 254,000. Earthquake-related shortages at Honda and big discounts on old Escapes made the difference.
Fuel economy is similar on the two SUVs. The new Escape can tow up to 3,500 pounds _ enough for a one-ton boat and its trailer _ which is 2,000 more than the CR-V. But the CR-V offers some standard features that cost extra on the Escape, like a backup camera.
The new Escape costs $1,000 more than the outgoing model, although its $22,470 starting price puts it on par with the CR-V. Features can add up quickly. To get Ford's new automatic lift gate, which opens when the driver makes a kicking motion under the bumper, you have to upgrade to a $26,290 SE and pay $495. Leather seats cost even more.
The new Escape is 4 inches longer than the old one and has slightly more cargo space. Ford is discontinuing the hybrid version, which got 32 miles per gallon, but buyers can get up to 33 mpg with one of the new Escape's gas engines.
So far this year, Escape sales are down 2 percent as old models sell out and the company transitions to the new ones. But they're expected to rise in the second half of 2012. CR-V sales are up 29 percent.