MUSKOKA, Ontario—Ford marketing had a slogan not long ago about “the Power of Choice.” It referred mostly to the range of fuel efficiency options the company had on offer, but it could really sum up the entire Ford approach today.
Ford Canada’s recent event in Muskoka, Ontario highlighting its entire SUV lineup underscored this point: its roster of utility vehicles is vast, but so are its engines, trim levels, and option package choices.
“Choice is key,” explains Gonzalo Contreras, the product marketing manager for SUVs for Ford of Canada. “It’s the Ford way, and the sales numbers back that up.”
Ford’s lineup of SUVs will expand to six by early 2018 with the launch of the new-to-North-America subcompact EcoSport, which will slot in as the brand’s new entry-level crossover. The tiny ute will act as an even smaller alternative to the Escape, which made up more than half of Ford’s 2016 SUV sales.
Filling out the roster are the mid-size Edge, rugged seven-seat Explorer, boxy-looking Flex, and full-size eight-seat Expedition.
Most of them share similar styling and features; some even compete against each other in the same segment. This can lead to confusion for consumers, and it begs the question: when is a lot of choice too much? Does Ford have enough customers for all six products to succeed?
Bringing in the specialists
“I don’t think having so many SUV options confuse customers,” says Contreras. “Yes, there’s an overlap at times between the Escape and Edge, as well as the Explorer and Flex, but we’d rather have a customer debate between two of our products than lose them to another brand.”
It’s hard to argue that point, since Ford is the number one SUV brand in both Canada and the United States. And those sales numbers are expected to rise when the EcoSport enters one of the fastest-growing compact crossover segments and take on rivals like the also-just-introduced Nissan Qashqai.
“Customers are getting more specialized, whether they are single, married, have kids, go off-roading, or use a boat to tow,” adds Contreras. “Ford wants to have an SUV for all stages of life with the idea to start off with one and move up or down as situations change.”
Escape versus Edge
The EcoSport and Expedition were not at the Muskoka event, so I put the “moving up in life” theory into practice by driving the other four in order of size: Escape, Edge, Explorer, and Flex.
The toughest two to tell apart were clearly the Escape and Edge. The Escape starts at a friendly $25,099 compared to the Edge at $33,199, but at first glance, all you see is that similar front fascia with Ford’s signature three-bar horizontal grille. Other features such as headlights, fog lamps, and the front bumper all change between the two models, but don’t venture far from each other, with just a slight slant here or chrome touch there.
If looks don’t change much, performance does, and that’s where your money goes. The Edge’s standard engine, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder EcoBoost, starts out at 245 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. That same engine can be had in the Escape, but as a $1,000 option at the second-tier SE trim level.
During the drive, the Edge Sport AWD was fitted with the top-of-the-line 315-hp 2.7-litre EcoBoost V6, which was much more lively and brisk than the 2.0-litre in the Escape Titanium 4WD. Both handled the Muskoka roads quietly and efficiently with direct turning precision and seamless transitions through identical six-speed automatic transmissions. They also both suffered from a touchy braking system that made for jerky stops at times.
The two trucks were consistent when it came to tech, too: Ford’s new-for-2018 Safe and Sound package, valued at $1,195, includes Blind Spot Information, Lane Keep Assist, Lane Departure Warning, Adaptive Cruise, Auto Head Lamps and Rain Sensing Wipers, and is available with both vehicles. That’s not by accident.
“We expect consumers to want similar features within each product, and it’s those additional features and upscale touches as you move up from Escape to Edge that will help them decide,” says Contreras.
Making the choice even harder is the fact the Escape’s SE trim will soon come with a 1.5-litre EcoBoost capable of towing up to 2,000 lbs, bringing it more in line with Ford’s other SUVs.
Choosing between the Escape and Edge truly comes down to customer preference. If performance is high on the list, the Edge offers up a strong V6 and more refined touches; while the Escape provides similar versatility and handling dynamics, plus better fuel economy, at close to a $10K discount.
Explorer versus Flex
The Escape and Edge are about as close as the Explorer and Flex are apart. The Explorer’s your more typical seven-seat SUV, with rugged looks and off-roading capabilities; while the Flex, also a seven-seater, takes on a polarizing, boxy soccer-team-carpooling persona, with a wide body and bus-style second-row seating.
The sales are split pretty wide, too. For 2016, Ford sold 15,275 Explorers in Canada and only 2,587 Flexes. The numbers stayed consistent through April 2017; the Explorer made up 19.8 per cent of Ford’s SUV sales up to that point this year, up two percent versus 2016, while the Flex stayed stagnant at three percent.
Even though the Flex has a loyal following, it’s a niche product, and one that hasn’t had a major revision since 2013. The drive made that evident, especially when we compared the older-looking interior layout, less advanced technologies, and heavier drive feel from the Flex’s 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6 to the 2.3-litre EcoBoost inline-four unit under the hood of the Explorer. The Explorer allows consumers to opt for a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine that drives smaller than its size at close to an equal price.
Contreras points to the Flex playing a part in the Ford SUV portfolio, but with the advent of the Bronco in 2020 and a revised 2018 Expedition that resembles a larger Explorer, it’s possible the Flex might just go away in the next few years.
So does Ford have too many SUVs?
It’s possible, but past sales and future projections seem to dictate otherwise. The Escape and Edge may look relatively similar and play in a similar space, but those SUVs rank as the two top-selling Canadian SUVs in the Ford lineup—a clear indication there’s a need for both.
As for the rest of the lineup, well, “more Explorers would have been sold in 2016, if more were produced,” says Contreras, an opinion backed up by a 33.3-percent increase in Canadian Explorer sales in 2017 so far.
The EcoSport and Expedition should do relatively well considering the former will fill a growing subcompact crossover gap; while the latter comes in based on the F-Series’ truck platform and offers bold, brash looks and segment-leading towing. Perhaps most importantly, the Expedition will be all-new for the first time in twenty years, in a full-size SUV market that doesn’t come across many refreshing changes.
That leaves the Flex, an aging SUV that might just be replaced by the upcoming mid-size Bronco in 2020. If that’s the case, the Ford SUV lineup will still have six capable SUVs on offer, a choice Ford definitely likes its customers to have.