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The market for sport-utility vehicles has grown at an unprecedented rate, especially for car-based crossovers, and few industry analysts expect the surge to level off anytime soon, which is why this year's New York International Auto Show is awash in new "two-box" designs of various sizes and prices.
One of the most important of those debuts will be the next-generation Ford Escape. Ford was a pioneer in the SUV boom with its big Explorer. But in recent years the Escape has become its dominant offering — generating sales second only to the full-size Ford F-Series pickups. And with so many new competitors coming to market for 2020 and beyond, Ford is going to have to nail it with the new crossover utility vehicle, or CUV.
One way it hopes to increase Escape's appeal is by offering the compact crossover with a variety of powertrain options that, for the first time will include not only a gas-electric hybrid but a plug-in hybrid. It is also planning to add a more rugged version that will challenge the off-road credibility of Jeep's Cherokee.
"This all-new Escape brings a sleeker, sportier design with the capability to take you on just about any of your life's adventures," Kumar Galhotra, Ford's North America president, said ahead of Escape's debut in New York. "With our class-leading hybrid powertrains, customers will spend less time at the gas station and more time on the road."
Ford was actually a latecomer to the compact utility vehicle segment, following Japanese offerings like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. And, in its initial incarnation, it used a more traditional, truck-based body-on-frame design. That meant it was more rugged than the Asian models that were often derided as "soft-roaders," but it also lacked their on-road manners and fuel economy.
When a third-generation Escape was launched in 2013, Ford migrated to a crossover platform, boosting comfort and handling, as well as mileage, and gaining traction with U.S. buyers.
The fourth-generation Escape takes the same approach, but it adopts an even sleeker look, in part to put some distance between it and the reborn Bronco model that Ford will launch in 2020.
"We want to have really differentiated styling. "The new Escape's silhouette is very sleek, dynamic — more progressive. The off-road [Bronco] will be more upright, boxy," said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford's executive vice president of product development.
The Escape's cabin will also take on a more refined, car-like look, reflecting the fact that Ford expects it to pick up many of the buyers it might otherwise lose as it abandons such familiar sedan nameplates as the Fiesta, Focus and Fusion over the next several years.
Escape will be loaded with the sort of high-tech features that younger buyers crave, including the latest take on Ford's Sync infotainment system, now able to handle both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It also will offer an assortment of advanced driver assistance features, dubbed Co-Pilot 360, including automatic emergency braking and blind-spot detection, as well as the ability to park itself in a tight spot.
As for powertrains, the 2020 Escape will start off with two gas engines, including the premium turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost inline-four making 250 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The hybrid will pair a 2.5-liter gas engine with an electric motor to boost mileage, though Ford has not yet released final EPA numbers.
The plug-in hybrid, the first in the segment, will add a larger battery pack capable of propelling the 2020 Escape for up to 30 miles in all-electric mode. Using a 240-volt Level 2 charger, the same type many homeowners are adding, charge times for a drained battery will run around 3.5 hours.
As for the more rugged version of the Escape, Ford is only dropping hints for the moment, Thai-Tang said an "off-road version" is in development and should make its debut late this year.
Pricing will be released over the coming weeks, but the base 2020 Ford Escape is expected to top the current entry model, which starts around $24,100.
Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. Ford paid for his transportation and lodging at the New York International Auto Show.