The week prior to the Thanksgiving holiday I spent two harried days running around the Los Angeles convention center taking in the city’s annual auto show, and while LA had its fair share of exotic concept and low volume performance debuts – Chevy Camaro ZL1, Mercedes ML63 AMG, Subaru BRZ, and the Porsche 911 to name a few – it was the reveal of two compact utilities, the Ford Escape and the Honda CR-V, that were arguably the show’s most significant.

Let’s look at some data to back this up.  Just five years ago, compact utilities had a 9% share of all new vehicles sold; at the close of business this year, the segment will end up with a share north of 13%.  This four point gain would most likely have been higher had it not been for disaster-related production disruptions experienced for a major chunk of the year. 

Why the growth in sales?  A lower price point relative to larger utilities, cargo versatility, fuel efficiency, and car-like driving dynamics; the appeal of the segment is pretty obvious as you run down the list of benefits.

Recognizing this, manufactures are keen on growing their share of the segment pie.

Up until this year, Honda’s CR-V had been the longtime segment sales champ, consistently enjoying sales around 200k units per year.  This kind of volume makes the CR-V the third highest selling Honda model, behind the Accord and Civic.

March’s earthquake off the coast of Japan stymied CR-V production and sales, and as a result, the seemingly long-in-the-tooth Ford Escape will supplant the CR-V as the segment’s 2011 sales champ.  Similar to Honda, the Escape is a major contributor to Ford’s overall sales tally as it consistently ranks in the top five of all Ford vehicles sold.  

Numbers like these mean that both OEMs have quite a bit riding on the success of the new iterations introduced in LA, and after close scrutiny I don’t think that there is much of a downside risk for either nameplate.

This being said, I think that Ford’s progressive approach to the Escape’s redesign gives it more upside potential than the CR-V.
The 2013 MY Escape looks absolutely nothing like the outgoing model.  Built off of Ford’s global C platform (Focus, C Max), the new Escape has a sharp, modern design that departs dramatically from the current gen’s block-on-wheels form.

Ford’s compact crossover doesn’t disappoint technologically either, with standard fare such as Ford’s SYNC and MyFord Touch being offered alongside class exclusives such as parking assist and a hands-free liftgate (which is activated by moving a foot underneath of the rear bumper).

The standard (and dated) carry-over 2.5L I4 powertrain aside, the Escape’s two new direct-injected turbocharged engines –1.6L and 2.0L “Ecoboost” I4s – promise to increase the fun quotient even further by pumping out an estimated 173 and 237 horsepower respectively (on 87 octane nonetheless).  Heck, the thing will even tow up to 3,500 pounds with the right powertrain/hitch setup.  Not too shabby for a compact utility maxing out at around 3,800 pounds.

Don’t get me wrong, the new CR-V looks to be an excellent compact utility, and compared to the 2012 Civic, Honda’s redesign of the CR-V could almost be called bold (in fact that’s what Honda is calling it).  In truth though, the new CR-V’s design is in line with Honda’s conservative philosophy of evolutionary evolvement rather than revolutionary re-birth.  

While clearly successful in the past, it remains to be seen how this approach will play out among consumers with an increasing appetite for reliable design forward products.  Based on what I saw in LA, Ford’s new Escape will certainly make it a challenge for the CR-V to regain, let alone retain, its former position of supremacy in this hyper-competitive segment.