The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy
Business & Economy

Ford has discovered that America loves small SUVs

The Ford Escape has been a big sales success for Ford so far this year.
The Ford Escape has been a big sales success for Ford so far this year.

Prior to the financial crisis and the meltdown of the Detroit auto industry, Ford reliably sold hundreds of thousands of its full-size SUV, the Explorer, every year. The high water mark was 2002, when 433,847 of the vehicles were unleashed on happy consumers.

Since 2005, however, and with the end of the era of cheap gas (seemingly), Explorer sales have never climbed above 200,000. 

The Ford Escape, a small SUV, is another story. Ford just released sales numbers for September, and the Escape is one of the highlights. The vehicle is on track to beat last year's sales of more than 250,000, which was itself a record.

In terms of volume, the only vehicle that did better in Ford's lineup was the F-Series — basically the F-150 pickup truck, America's best-selling vehicle for decades.

The Escape appears to be doing well for a couple of reasons. First, it got a design update for the 2013 model year, aligning it more closely with the look of the Explorer but also moving toward a new undergirding architecture that separates it from Escapes of the past and make it more of a small crossover.

Second, the Escape occupies a very versatile niche for size. American have soured somewhat on big SUVs but they haven't completely abandoned their general distaste for small cars. The Escape, along with vehicles such as the Honda CR-V, provide more than enough space for four passengers, along with extra cargo room for gear, shopping and so on. The Escape also provides good ability to tow a trailer, something that matters to outdoorsy types who might not want all the truck they get with a F-150 or an Explorer.

Environmentally, the Escape is a good compromise. It isn't ideal, but it's a good choice for a lot of Americans right now. So it's sales success shouldn't be a surprise. Heck, if we do sell 14.5 million new vehicles this year in the U.S,. almost 2 percent of that total could be Ford Escapes.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.