DETROIT -- The redesigned Ford Escape is a small sport utility vehicle 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 Motor Co., with more than 2 million sales over the last decade, and it went toe to toe with such popular models as 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 prerecession sales levels, according to Erich Merkle, Ford's chief U.S. sales analyst. More than 1.8 million of them were sold in 2011, about 14 percent of all sales. A decade ago, the segment made up just 5 percent of sales.
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," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with car-buying site Edmunds.com.
The 2013 Escape, which gets an official kickoff today at the Louisville 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 such as the CR-V. The new Escape, designed in Europe, has the sloped, aerodynamic roof and sharper lines of the Focus sedan on which it's based.
Terry Kidd, owner of Kidd Ford Lincoln in Morrison, Tenn., sayid the redesign will draw customers who preferred the tapered look of brands such as Honda, which ditched the boxier styling on the CR-V in 2007. Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
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, requires upgrading to a $26,290 SE and paying $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.
The Escape's biggest rival may be within Ford's own lineup.
Ms. Caldwell said she expects the Escape to cut into sales of the Ford Edge, which also seats five and is built on a car platform. The Edge is a little plusher -- and costs $5,000 more to start than the new Escape -- but the dimensions, cargo space, towing capability, and fuel economy are nearly the same.
But Ford's Mr. Merkle said the segment is so large there's room for both vehicles. He pointed out that Edge sales rose last year even though the Escape and the redesigned Explorer midsize SUV posted huge gains.
"Everyone has a little different need," he said. "You have to pick your flavor, and we think we've got a pretty good lineup of flavors."