California – and it's celebrities, sunshine, and ability to set trends all over the world – has become a major marketing target for the automaker. Executives seem to believe the old song about New York applies to California – If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
So the SUV, which looks much less like a boxy truck-like vehicle than it did when it was first introduced in 2001, will come with lots of features that could appeal to the California market. It will come with several fuel-efficient options, including Ford's Ecoboost engine, to offer better fuel economy. But it won't have a V6 engine, because those use up a lot of fuel, and Ford feels like it's able to offer the same kind of performance with its more fuel-efficient options.
The interior will use lots of recycled materials, like old soda bottle caps turned into carpeting, scrap denim used as sound absorbing material, and seating material that uses soy.
Although no one expects buyers to chose an Escape because it's got recycled materials inside, those kinds of materials could give customers (especially Californian buyers) a happy glow about their new car.
"When you make those green decisions, you feel better about yourself," said Jason Sprawka, Ford's brand manager for the Escape.
Finding ways to attract more West Coast customers is crucial for any automaker that wants to do well in the U.S. California is the largest market here, accounting for 10% of all car sales in 2010, according to the National Auto Dealers Association. That means California buyers spent $57 billion on car in 2010. And 2010 wasn't even a strong year.
"For the last three decades, Japanese and Korean imports pummeled General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in California, making U.S.-based brands essentially irrelevant in the state that's known for making national trends," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for consumer web site Edmunds.com.
For Ford, the success of the Escape is crucial. It has gone from a small player, making up just 5% of Ford's market share in the early 2000s, to 14% last year. It is Ford's second best-selling product, behind the Ford F-150.
Ford's overall market share in California is up to 11.6%, Edmunds says, from just 10% in 2008. A lot of that share growth is due to the growth of small cars, but SUVs are popular in the Golden State too.
The look of the new Escape is much more refined than the original Escape, which came out in 2001. The original seemed more Jeep-like, and with a shorter wheel base. Its ride was very bouncy, and it felt like a car you could take camping or throw some bags of mulch in the back, and not really worry about it.
The 2013 Escape sits lower to the ground, and has shiny chrome features you wouldn't want to muss up. Its features seem geared more for moms on the go than dads on the run – like the kick-start option that lets you open the back door without your hands, by swinging your foot under the tailgate.
Those are the kinds of changes consumers want, said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. Customers don't really want another truck-based SUV, he said, and they want something stylish.
"Design is becoming one more feature that is a differentiator," he said. "We expect it to continue to be a big player."
Ford has also made significant upgrades to the MyFord Touch electronic dashboard. The automaker has been slammed by outside critics for the clunky, slow design of the first MyFord Touch version. Although AOL Autos hasn't yet been able to test drive the newer version, a quick run-through at a presenation near Ford's headquarters in Dearborn showed promise.
The screen responds much quicker to initial touches, so frustrated drivers won't feel the need to keep banging on the screen to get it to do something. There is a center knob that lets drivers control the radio volume and tuning, which makes it easier to do those basic tasks. The old version forced drivers to find the audio controls on the screen, then push the volume down button repeatedly to turn down the sound.
The automaker also promises the system will work faster, and it will detect voices better.