Did Ford Motor Co. wait too long to enter the white-hot subcompact crossover segment?
Not at all, experts say.
By the time the North American version of the EcoSport hits showrooms in early 2018, most of Ford's competition will be well into their product life cycles. But analysts and executives expect that continued strong demand -- along with Ford's success with larger SUVs -- will allow the EcoSport to generate healthy sales numbers.
"I don't think you can ever get in the crossover market too late," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for AutoTrader and Kelley Blue Book. "Ford could have sold a good chunk if it would have been there one or two years ago, but they'll sell plenty when it gets here."
While U.S. light-vehicle demand has slipped 0.3 percent this year from 2015's record levels, the subcompact crossover market is on fire -- surging 32 percent through October to nearly 300,000 vehicles. Ford says the segment has quadrupled since 2011 and it expects that market will double in size by the end of the decade.
"When you look at the growth, it's been pretty spectacular, not only here but around the world," Ford CEO Mark Fields told Automotive News. "We think, looking at demographics, it's going to continue to grow."
IHS Markit expects that growth rate will cool slightly by 2020 as the industry sales pace levels off, but senior analyst Stephanie Brinley still expects EcoSport to be "a home run product."
Ford hopes the vehicle will appeal to millennials who want to share experiences with friends, while empty-nest baby boomers will want it as a way of downsizing without sacrificing utility.
"We believe this is the right vehicle for the time we're currently living in," said Michael O'Brien, Ford's SUV group marketing manager.
The EcoSport was introduced in 2003 in South America. Last year, Ford said it sold just over 250,000 EcoSports globally in 140 countries, and it has delivered 1.7 million worldwide since its introduction.
The EcoSport will debut in a competitive U.S. segment that includes the Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek, Chevrolet Trax and Buick Encore. Toyota, Hyundai and Kia are also preparing entries in the segment. Ford wouldn't comment on pricing, but much of its competition starts around $20,000.
Ford did not release volume targets, but Brinley forecasts the automaker will sell 60,000 EcoSports in the U.S. annually. The five-seat vehicle will be imported to the U.S. from Ford's plant in Chennai, India.
The vehicle features a front end, powertrain, technology and interior design unique to North America. It will be 9 inches shorter than the compact Ford Escape.
"We gave our designers the task of delivering a vehicle that had some attitude, had some ruggedness, but also demonstrated the agility and nimbleness that customers in this space desire," O'Brien said.
Depending on trim level, the instrument panel features either a 4-, 6- or 8-inch touchscreen. It's the first Ford vehicle to debut a "floating display," where the screen is tilted above the console for easier access.
The EcoSport will feature Harman's B&O Play sound system as optional equipment depending on trim level.
"There's three things our SUV customers want: performance, capability and technology," said Eric Loeffler, the EcoSport's chief engineer. "It's a unique challenge to get all that into such a small package."
The EcoSport will come standard with a front-wheel-drive, 1.0-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engine. A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with four-wheel drive will be optional. Both engine options come with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The EcoSport will feature four trim levels -- S, SE, SES and Titanium.
Ford did not disclose fuel economy ratings or horsepower figures for the baby crossover.