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Ford digs deep for great Escape

Too radical: The sharp lines of the Alpe Limited will be toned down for the production Escape.

A new sub-compact four-wheel drive wagon called Escape will spearhead Ford's push into Australia's fastest growing market segment

22 Jul 1999

FORD Australia is gearing up for a three-pronged attack on the thriving all-terrain wagon market.

The models in Ford's future 4x4 planning are: * An all-new compact RAV-4-style wagon being developed in the US which uses a Mazda 626 platform and is tipped to be called the Escape.

* The so-called Raptor, an Australian-produced model based on the Falcon platform but with four-wheel drive and a more utilitarian body - mainly designed for export.

* The big US-built Expedition, which would sit above the current Explorer range in the full-size off-road wagon market.

The frustration for Ford executives is all three models are at least several years away and in the meantime the company is losing valuable ground in Australia's fastest growing market segment.

All-terrain wagons could account for 100,000 sales this year but Ford will have only a 1.8 per cent share with its only entry, the Explorer.

The big gains in the segment are coming with compact designs like the Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester, which account for 22 per cent of sales between them.

It is therefore no surprise Ford Australia is most interested in the new global vehicle being developed in conjunction with Mazda for release in 2001.

This has been code-named U204 within Ford but we understand the international marketing department has opted for the name Escape.

Although early plans suggested it would be based on the Ford Mondeo platform, we understand the Mazda 626, which has already been developed for four-wheel drive, will form the base for the new vehicle.

Production is expected to be about 160,000 units a year in America with Mazda building another 60,000 annually in Japan.

It is possible the Australian market vehicles will come from Japan, also a right-hand drive market.

Like most of its rivals, the main engine for the Escape will be a four-cylinder unit of between 2.0 and 2.2 litres, but there will also be a luxury 3.0-litre V6 range-topper.

The engines will drive through conventional five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions with all four wheels driven by an electronic system which only applies power to the rear wheels when extra traction is required.

Spy shots from Europe, where development has been taking place, suggest the Escape will look like a scaled-down Explorer in order to slot into the Ford line-up around the world.

The concept of the Escape was revealed at the Detroit Motor Show in January, 1998, in the form of the Alpe Limited, which was based on the smaller European Escort platform (which is Laser size).

But the Alpe's sharp lines below the waistline have been smoothed over to make it more conservative for international markets.

Ford Australia's sales and marketing director, Mr Matthew Taylor, confirmed the company's interest in getting the Escape and revealed a prototype was already in Australia being evaluated.

"A sub-compact four-wheel drive vehicle is on our wish list and we are looking at the vehicle that is being developed on a global basis for various markets, not just Europe," he said.

"It is being tried and tested out here in Australia to see whether it is suitable for our market as well." Mr Taylor said he was keen to get the vehicle "as quickly as possible" but had no firm dates.

He also confirmed interest in the big V8-engined Expedition but said there were no plans yet for this to be produced in right- hand drive.

"We are talking to the US to see whether there is the ability to convert it to right-hand drive and make a viable equation to bring it out to the Australian market," said Mr Taylor.

"Given the growth in the all-terrain wagon segment, any of the products we have on a world-wide basis - and remember we are the world's largest manufacturer of four-wheel drive products - we have to look at all of these products and see which ones fit into the Australian market.

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