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Ford's hopes are high for redesigned Escape

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 SUVs 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.

The 2013 Escape, which gets an official kickoff today 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.

Fuel economy is similar on the Ford and Honda CR-V. 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.

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