It hit me when I first saw the 2013 Ford Escape parked in front of my house: Americans have fallen out of love with the SUV. The rugged individualist has traded in his boots for a comfortable pair of Rockports.
One product doesn't make a trend, and the refinements evident in the newly redesigned Escape have been evolving in the auto industry for a while. Crossovers that blend the easy handling of a sedan with the commanding posture of an SUV are now the hottest segment. Ford took a major step in this direction with the gentrified Explorer that replaced the older, truckier version in 2010. One of the biggest hits in General Motors's lineup has been the Chevrolet Traverse, a kind of SUV light that feels more like a minivan inside.
But the Escape clinched it for me. The old model was a workhorse sport-utility vehicle that was convenient for dropping the kids at school, yet could still ford a stream if equipped with four-wheel drive. It was a boxy roughneck that looked like it enjoyed a dunk in the mud, like the retriever you might haul around in the back. A typical ad showed a family camping by the side of a lake, the trusty Escape parked nearby in case they needed to outrun a grizzly. Ford sold more than two million of them over 12 years, making the Escape one of the most popular SUVs on the road.
You could probably coax the 2013 Escape across a stream, if you asked nice, except that you wouldn't want to muss it. The new Escape is fetching and swept, with no sentimentality for the earthy creature it used to be. It's more urban hipster than earnest outdoorsman. A weeklong drive in the model Ford delivered to me for testing revealed the new Escape to be a confident crowd-pleaser, and perhaps one of the biggest automotive hits of the year.
People walked up to me in parking lots to ask, "Is that really the new Escape?" Most seemed delighted by the dandyish makeover. Some planned to buy one. My own driving impressions suggest that they'll be sold when they take it for a spin at the dealership. I can't recall getting more street reaction to a car I've test-driven since the Hummer H2 debuted in 2002, fascinating some and appalling others.
Hummer, it's worth noting, is dead, a casualty of rising gas prices, changing tastes and the 2009 bankruptcy of parent company GM. Many other so-called SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V, the Chevy Equinox, the Toyota Highlander, the Ford Edge and the Nissan Murano, are more like glorified wagons. In internal discussions, Ford executives don't even use the expression SUV any more, preferring "utility" instead.
Auto analysts aren't surprised that traditional SUVs are finally heading out to pasture, because some of them were dreadful to start with. Most of the SUVs that became popular in the 1990s, such as the Explorer and the Chevy Blazer, were built on frames borrowed from pickup trucks. The rigid frames made them suitable for off-roading, a capability many American drivers suddenly valued. Yet the ride could be stiff and jarring, and only about five percent of SUV owners ever took their vehicles off the pavement. American drivers turned out to be far less rugged than the image they wanted to convey.
The baby boomers who popularized SUVs still dominate the market, but they've stopped pretending to be off-roading daredevils eager to wade through mud bogs or navigate boulders.
"Boomers are starting to retire or become empty-nesters," says Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst for Ford. "Now there are maybe only two people in the household, or just one."
They no longer need big vehicles for carting their kids around, and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, boomers seem to be making humbler, more pragmatic choices. Compact utilities like the Escape now account for 40 percent of the market, for instance, twice the share they had 10 years ago.
There are still a few trail-ready SUVs for those who do hear the call of the wild, such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Toyota FJ Cruiser and the Nissan Xterra. But for most drivers, the call of the mall is about as wild as it gets. We're finally learning that there's no shame in that.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.