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Ford readies Escape for extreme makeover

Siblings Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute will also get new look after aging fast in stiff market, analysts say.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. will idle its sport utility vehicle production line in Kansas City, Mo., for six months later this year to make way for redesigned versions of the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner.

The new Escape will reflect the bolder design direction Ford has taken with new vehicles like the Ford Fusion sedan and Edge crossover, according to people familiar with the automaker's product plans. Those models feature a distinctive three-bar grille. Ford also plans a bolder design for the Mariner.

Ford's Japanese partner Mazda Motor Co. will redesign the Tribute SUV at the same time. The Escape, Mariner and Tribute all share the same platform.

The Ford Escape was introduced in 2000 as a 2001 model and was the first strong American entry into a compact SUV market then dominated by the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The Escape was an instant hit, vaulting to the top of the segment within a year with unit sales of 164,184 in 2001. However, sales have slumped as competitors have introduced new models.

"They have aged very quickly because of all the competition," said Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific in Southfield

All three redesigns will debut as 2008 models in 2007.

Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, said he expects the new Escape and Mariner to be in production a year from now.

"They have to do something with the Escape, no question, because it does represent some significant volume for them," Merkle said.

"The market is far too competitive to rest on one vehicle."

Last year, sales of the Ford Escape and Escape Hybrid suffered a 10 percent decline, falling from 183,430 units in 2004 to 165,122 units in 2005. Sales were down 14.4 percent in January, dropping to 11,010 from 12,868 in January of 2004.

The Mercury Mariner debuted in 2004 as a 2005 model. Ford introduced a hybrid version of the Mariner last fall. Together, the company sold 34,099 units last year, but sales of the Mariner and Mariner Hybrid were down in January, dropping 15.2 percent from 2,360 in January of 2005 to 2,002 last month.

Sales of the Tribute were down 10.5 percent last year, with 36,761 units sold in 2005 compared to 41,078 units in 2004. January sales were down even more sharply, dropping 12.8 percent from 2,803 in 2005 to 2,445 this year.

Mazda has worked hard to cultivate its "Zoom-Zoom" image as a sport-tuned brand. Even its Mazda5 minivan is racy. But some analysts, including Merkle, said the re-badged Escape never fit in Mazda's lineup and expected the company to kill the Tribute once the decidedly more Mazda-like CX-7 crossover hit the market.

But Mazda sources say the Tribute still has a place in the brand's lineup because it offers the space and flexibility of an SUV and beats the CX-7's sticker price. The CX-7 will start at $24,310 -- more than $4,000 more than the Tribute's $20,705 base sticker price. Hall said that is a big difference for that segment of the market, adding dealers would not willingly give up the Tribute given the difference.

Merkle said he hopes Ford will inject the new Tribute with more Mazda DNA.

"If they can give it its own character, its own personality that is consistent with Mazda's theme, that makes sense," he said. "As a one-off from the Ford Escape, it doesn't really make sense to keep it around."
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