This Aggression Will Not Stand

As Ford shuffles its CUV deck on both sides of the Atlantic, do we detect a certain softening in the Blue Oval’s visual palette?

(c) Top Gear

It has been, as DTW’s curiously silent Ford-obsessive, Myles Gorfe might have said, a very busy week in Ford circles, with not one, but three new CUV model lines being revealed. Although, in the interests of accurate reporting that statement might want to be revised downwards, given that the new-generation K U G A and E S C A P E models are broadly one and the same.

But to be even more factually rigorous, one really ought to refine this statement further, given that Ford did not at the time of writing get around to fully revealing the forthcoming Puma – (or should that read P U M A?) badged model, electing instead to defer that pleasure until the summer.

Ford’s US-market Escape and rest-of the-world Kuga (lets stick with mixed case letters here, shall we?) was revealed earlier in the week. Based on the current Focus’ C2 platform and technical package, it is longer (overall and in wheelbase length), lower (by 20mm), wider (by 44mm) and tellingly, more aerodynamic than the outgoing model; the latter not only being a necessary prerequisite in the drive to improve efficiency and reduce emissions, but also being screamingly obvious in visual terms.

The stylistic shift from the rather dull but more upright and ‘utility’ looking outgoing model is dramatic, yet despite this, the Kuga/Escape, while cleaving to Ford’s latest design direction, presents a rather generic face to the world, one our resident design critic latterly coined as ‘modern-vernacular‘. Distinctive it certainly isn’t, although one has to concede that this was clearly Ford’s intention.

“The SUV is evolving…” Amko Leenarts, Ford Director of Design

What is perhaps more interesting about Escape/Kuga (polarity reversed for the sake of balance) is what Ford’s current Director of Design, Amko Leenarts had to say, speaking at the Kuga’s European launch event in Amsterdam, telling Automotive News, “We did not want to go for the warrior, get-out-of-my-way look. The customer didn’t want that. The SUV is evolving into something that’s much more honest, friendlier…

One has to assume that the Blue Oval’s product strategists on both sides of the Atlantic have carried out their due diligence and that the target demographic for Kuga/Escape is not interested in something which resembles an attack vehicle, merely a taller riding, more substantial feeling version of the C-segment hatchback the Escape/Kuga undoubtedly resembles.

Certainly, the Kuga’s major European rivals which provide a broadly similar customer offer have to date given Ford a bit of a kicking. According to JATO Dynamics figures quoted this week by ANE, the outgoing Kuga was decisively outsold by Nissan’s Qashqai, VW’s Tiguan and Peugeot’s 3008, suggesting perhaps that its rather unsophisticated appearance (and perhaps its age) was hampering its prospects.

But while this may well be the case in Europe, it’s unclear whether the same can be said for North American customers, who have it could be argued, found the more utilitarian appearance of the outgoing car more to their tastes. A hugely unscientific reading of the reaction from the below-the-line, keyboard-warrior contingent amid US-centric automotive outlets in the wake of the Escape’s announcement suggests an element of dismay, with many lamenting the change in design ethos.

However, Ford is preparing a range of vehicles more attuned to these sensibilities in the forthcoming Bronco-badged offerings, which are believed to be closer to the pure-offroad template so favoured by the more ‘enthusiastic’ end of the SUV spectrum. Models, given the current ‘One Ford’ policy which are also likely to be offered in some form at least on European shores.

But despite America’s love of robust-looking SUVs, what is perhaps a little surprising is that according to Ford’s exterior design chief, George Sedarikis, the Escape/Kuga design theme was primarily driven by the design studio in Dearborn rather than at Köln-Merkenich, where one might have thought it would have originated.

“SUVs are critical to us”. Ford of Europe President, Stuart Rowley

It’s clear that Ford are making a distinction between their existing SUV customers and those they wish to attract, who might previously have purchased a conventional hatch or saloon model. And for these buyers it seems, warrior-like aggression is not on the spec-list. Neither it appears is the urge to stand out visually, if the resolved, if slightly anonymous appearance of Kuga/Escape is to be explained.

(c) Autocar

Further explanation perhaps can be found here. Ford’s commercial back is against the wall – especially so in Europe and without a significant shift in fortunes, will continue to lose relevance in the European mainland. And while some might suggest that this makes it exactly the right time to take a product-related leap, it would be a brave man who would choose to do so in the current climate.

But further speculation aside, the salient talking point of the Kuga/Escape (and potentially the Puma), is Ford’s stated direction of travel away from overtly pugnacious design – one which lends at the very least a faint glimmer of solace for those amongst us for whom this aggression will not stand.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “This Aggression Will Not Stand”

  1. Underlying the trend to SUVs and CUVs and now these rather harmless-looking tallish cars is something quite basic. That is the wish for customers to have a higher H-point. Sometime in the 1960s when sports cars were the paradigm for cars, the trend was for a lower H-point in the name of a smaller frontal area and better handling. So, for a long time cars got lower and it led to the demise of the hat. Now the trend is in the other direction and the paradigm for car is the off-roader, the essence of which is a higher H-point. The rest of the deal is being ditched: all-whee drive and a butch appearance. I wonder how the height of these new-wave vehicles compares to saloons from 1955.

    1. The wish for higher H-points has been there for a longer time, and initially this was catered for with MPVs. Today, every MPV due to being replaced will be followed by something resembling more of an SUV or CUV. Maybe we see two categories merging into one here? MPVs are getting higher window lines (which I regret a lot) and higher ground clearance (if in appearance only), SUVs are adopting a more civilised look and two-wheel drive.

  2. If, following the latest Fiesta and Focus, this is confirmation of a consistent new design theme for Ford, then it confirms my suspicion of a distinct loss of self-confidence on the part of a manufacturer that in the past was brave enough to lead, not follow the market. The Sierra, Mondeo Mk1, Granada Mk3 and Escort Mk3 were nothing like any competitor when launched and were influential on competitors’ subsequent designs.

    The new design theme is not unpleasant and I applaud Ford for toning down the visual aggression that has spoilt, for example, Audi design in recent times. That said, it has a strong “me too” flavour. It reminds me of Hyundai and Kia a decade ago, when the Korean manufacturers consciously mimicked European rather than Japanese or American designs in order to increase their acceptability in export markets. The mid-00’s Hyundai Sonata and Kia Magentis were remakably similar to contemporary (B6 and C6 generation) Audi A4 and A6 saloons, with clean flanks and minimal ornamentation:

    While wholly contempory and conventional looking, these designs represented a dramatic change of tack from their predecessors’ rather ersatz transpacific style:

    It’s interesting that Ford have not (as yet) given a name to this new design theme. I would suggest “Mazundai”…

    1. Is it a loss of confidence (and that is a presumption with a quantum of validity), or simply the fact that Ford have arrived at the conclusion that their previous attempts at design leadership have not sufficiently translated into sales? Radical design, while pleasing the likes of us in our gilded towers, has tended to hurt the blue oval in cold commercial terms. Certainly, one could argue that the mid-70’s Euro-Fords were perhaps better-judged to their market requirements, being contemporary, attractive, but somewhat conservative in appearance – to say nothing of their technical specification.

      Of course the markets were vastly different then, so one really ought not compare. So, while I regret Ford’s rowing-back on design, I can understand the commercial logic in such a move, especially as the industry grapples with how to clothe the next generation of vehicles. What seems pretty clear from this announcement is that while the Focus consistently outsold the outgoing Kuga in Europe, the opposite is likely to be true with this generation.

  3. Hi,

    I didn’t mention it the first time around but there’s something very Mercedes about the profile. It resembles the latest B-class a lot I think. Not saying Ford copied Mercedes but perhaps this ‘softening’ of the SUVs appearance is an industry-wide trend we’ll see more of in the coming years.
    It makes sense to me in a way. I think even if customers don’t demand it, as Ford is ascerting they did, the carmakers will manufacture themselves a new ‘direction’ for SUVs to go into, if only to get customers to change their car regularly and get them to think they’re not driving the very latest in terms of automotive trends.

    It reminds me of the washing-powder industry, coming up every 6 months with a “new” revolutionary tablet, ball, powder, liquid, capsule, pod, etc…that will supposedly wash your clothes even better. There’s a bit of that I think with carmakers coming up with phony “new ideas” or “new concepts” like this CUV-Light from Ford.

    1. Also I was very surprised when Ford unveiled the new Fiesta with an ‘Active’ version, mimicking off roaders with SUV attributes; I thought the fashion for superminis and compacts to have these versions (Cross, Active, etc…) was dying with the arrivals of “proper” B and C-class SUVs/CUVs.

    2. Regarding the “Active” versions of the Ka+, Fiesta, and Focus, I guess, relatively speaking, they cost buttons extra to produce (no metalwork changes, just different bumpers, plastic wheel arch and sill covers, and a small hike in ride height) so are worth a punt if they can snare gullible buyers into paying extra for them to ensure they can cope with high kerbs and wayward trollies at Tesco.

  4. So the trend in SUVs seems to be towards them becoming hatches with a higher hip-point? I followed a Macan the other day and was having just that thought – it’s a posh, large (wide in particular), high-riding hatch with butch attitude, but essentially a big hatch.

    It’s clear that the new Kuga is more alike the new Focus than were the forebears of those two cars. In this way, will there be an ‘Active’ trim for the 5 door Focus hatch, as it will surely look very alike the new Kuga?

    I also note the Mazda CX-30 really is very like the new 3 (and is rather nice for this type of car), and the repositioning of the 3 hatch to be less family centric, more edgy and coupe-like in its design, was very clearly undertaken to make space for it … I mention this just as further evidence that SUV design is evolving from ‘rural off-roader’ to ‘urban survivor’ (I struggled to find the right word to fill the second element of that descriptor).

    At this rate, the KIA Venga may find itself being a relevant design once again.

    1. Hmmm, not bad! Maybe, ‘Urban lifestyle statement’ is what I was looking for?

    2. How about “UAV” which stood for “Urban Activity Vehicle”, the descriptor optimiatically applied by Ford to the Fusion at its launch? Of course, it quickly mutated into a “PPV” or “Pensioners Perambulation Vehicle” thanks to its higher H point facilitating easier access and egress than the Fiesta.

    3. S. V. , there’s already an “Active” version of the new Focus, in both hatch and estate form. It is cheekily listed under ‘Crossovers and SUVs” on Ford’s UK website.

    4. I should have looked harder for those Active models. Rover’s 25 Streetwise really did presage this dreadful trend. I wonder if Peter Stevens makes a claim for it on his C.V. as surely it’s proved to be more commercially significant to the industry than having designed the McLaren F1!

    5. I well remember Car magazine’s pithy review of the Rover Streetwise in the Good, Bad and Ugly section at the back of the magazine. It said:

      “Only the streetstupid will buy one.”

      For some reason, it reminds me of a quip from the long departed British comedian, Bob Monkhouse:

      “They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now!”

  5. I’ve been reading those Flickr Motor and Autocar road test archives Mr Martin posted the link to. Really interesting for me and quite enjoyable.

    The ’60s may have gone to lower cars, but the ground clearance of cars was still comically and practically high , so much so they make the new Kuga look like a hovercraft. Same with new Cayenne.

    When the dopes at car companies wake up one day, they’ll just make higher cars again like they used to until the early ’90s, when they started packing on weight as well. Only to find the Subaru Crosstrek and Outback beat them to it.

    No doubt people want higher Hip points but you don’t need an unstyleable SUV two box hatcback on (now minor) stilts to do it. Trouble is, due to advertising, people now assume 7 inches of GC requires a butch crossover. So, I’ll be interested in how the new bland Kuga does as the Escape in North America – putting in a 3 cylinder engine may sink the darn thing anyway. The bleating over Mazda’s reversion to a torsion beam axle in the 3 is reaching crescendo pitch. There’s a lower limit below which people do not want to go. In a MINI they’ll accept the quirk – in a mainstream US vehicle ( as they imagine an Escape is), I’m not so sure.

  6. As far as I can work out the precursor of the 2003 Rover Streetwise was the 1999 Audi A6 Allroad, which was probably inspired by the Volvo V70XC. The Volvo only assumed the full panoply of black plastic ruggedness signifiers in its second (2000) generation.

    I’ll contentiously suggest that Stevens did a pretty good job on the Streetwise. It was a sales success, and achieved its intended purpose of reaching buyers who would otherwise never have considered buying a Rover.

    Everyone followed – the Brazilians seem to particlarly like their small cars jacked-up and plastic bedecked – CrossFox etc – but it made some sense where steeply cambered roads challenge ordinary approach and departure angles.

  7. The most perplexing thing about the Kuga is that while the non-electrified powertrains are textbook WLTP-era Euro-fodder, the hybrids have a huge 2.5 litre atmospheric four. It’s called a Duratec (which is no help at all) and seems to be a rather old Mazda L-engine adapted to run on the Atkinson cycle. It sounds like an attempt to rival Toyota’s new ‘Dynamic Force’ engine on the cheap.

    I’m all for big-capacity engines (a couple more cylinders would be nice too) but this combination exposes the flaws of the plug-in hybrid idea. It delivers the right figures in a particular use pattern, but outwith that it’s hampered by a heavy powertrain and battery payload.

    I suspect the lingering curse of “One Ford”. What if that Ford is one than nobody worldwide likes very much?

  8. Here’s something interesting (to me anyway, but I don’t get out much). This is the new U.S. market Escape:

    Compare with the European Kuga, ostensibly the same “One Ford” world car:

    The grille on the Escape is noticably shallower and the front clip (as the Americans say) noticably less aggressive overall. Do we need to revise our snobbish presumptions about US vs European tastes? More likely, I’m reading way too much into this.

    1. The Escape appears less aggressive than the Kuga to differentiate it from the forthcoming “baby Bronco” which is expected to look more like a traditional SUV. Also, Escape now needs to cover the market segments formerly occupied by the cancelled Focus and C-Max.

  9. Returning to the subject of Ford’s new design theme, I may have to revise my opinion expressed above, suggesting a loss of confidence on Ford’s part. Autocar has run a piece today suggesting that the Mondeo, S-Max and Galaxy will be replaced by a single new model, a crossover, and has produced the following rendering:

    If the production model looks anything like this, then it could be rather nice. It could do without the fussy front valance, but otherwise looks quite smooth, and would represent a nice evolution of Ford’s new design theme. Richard has commented on the excellent surfacing on the latest Fiesta (and Focus?) so, hopefully, this will continue the trend.

    Some have commented that it’s just a tall estate car, but so what? Estate cars have always been very practical*, so it would be good to welcome a new variation on thst theme.

    * and often better looking than their saloon car equivalents. Off the top of my head, I would list the following models where this is emphatically the case:

    Skoda Superb (Mk2)
    BMW 5 Series (E60)
    Austin Montego
    Volvo 740

    I’m sure there are others that fall into this category.

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