Ford Vertrek: When worlds collide

By Guy Bird for CAR Magazine, Jan 2011

Today, Europe has the Kuga, North America the Escape. In 2012, a car very much like the Vertrek replaces both

It’s a bitterly cold and snowy morning in December 2010 outside a smart photography studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. We’re about to see the new Ford Vertrek Concept more than a month before its official unveil in Detroit and get the low-down on its significance from Martin Smith, Ford’s design chief for Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa and the man instrumental in the Blue Oval’s European-led kinetic design renaissance – think current Fiesta, Mondeo and more.

Entering the all-white studio space the outline of the concept – still literally under wraps – reveals a curvier crossover than US customers of the upright and boxy Escape SUV will have been used to in various guises since 2002, and less angular than the radical Kuga European drivers have been familiar with since 2008. Something a lot like it will replace both in circa 2012 as we soon discover.

He has a calm no-nonsense manner that shows he’s done these presentations hundreds of times before and is at ease with both the process of design and the sometimes harder job of selling them to upper management and the media

There’s a little time to take in the shape – big 21” wheels and arches, high bonnet and window line plus a relatively small side window graphic and tapering roofline – before Smith strolls through the door. The 61-year old Sheffield-born Brit clearly isn’t from the engineering department – there’s a coloured pattern on the inside of his quietly flamboyant shirt collar – but in person he also has a calm no-nonsense manner that shows he’s done these presentations hundreds of times before and is at ease with both the process of design and the sometimes harder job of selling them to upper management and the media.

The sheets aren’t off yet but he’s already into his patter: “The job of this vehicle is to prepare the North American public and current Escape customers for a radically different vehicle to the one they’re currently driving.”

That’s a rather dull, unsophisticated and Jeep-like brick, but nonetheless a big deal for Ford in the US with 200,000 annual sales compared to the European Kuga’s 60,000 tally. That’s a lot of people to annoy if you go too bold (or too conservative). But the Vertrek’s no ‘toe-in-the-water’ concept. As is often the case these days the production version has long been signed off. Rather, it’s being launched in Detroit to get US punters used to a new kind of crossover Ford is confident will go down well worldwide, as Smith reasons: “When the Kuga was launched in Europe the North American bloggers were all over the vehicle, saying it was yet another stylish vehicle they wouldn’t get in the US. We’ve had a fantastic response to the Fiesta and Focus so we believe the time is right.” 

Even from the outline of the new concept it’s obviously more Kuga-inspired than Escape-influenced, but was that always the plan? “The success of kinetic design has now been adopted by North America as a global strategy,” Smith confirms, “so logically if this is a global vehicle and replaces the Escape it will by definition be kinetic.”

“Maybe we should pull the covers off…”

Recently arrived at the shoot, European exterior design director, Stefan Lamm and chief interior designer Ernst Reim, do Smith’s bidding but without any big motorshow soundtrack or crowd’s applause. The only audible sound is the swish of the material and the background shutter-click of CAR’s photographer catching the action. Smith resets to presentation mode: “It’s called Vertrek, signifying versatility and urban ruggedness. The capability to tow a horsebox or a boat is always there, but what people really like is a higher seating position and having a tough vehicle.”

Visually, it instantly succeeds on those criteria. The front is far from meek but with the chunky C-Max a-like surround to its slim top grille and stretched triple lower air intakes akin to the new Focus, it doesn't look like a car that wants to turn you into road kill and eat the remains after. But there’s also an elegance to the design. Exterior chief Lamm picks up the story. “We think the time of really busy designs is coming to an end,” the tall and thoughtful German says, “now is the time for simpler designs but with really strong graphics.”

The Vertrek certainly follows that design principle, notably on the bonnet where the central ‘power dome’ section is subtly raised and then graphically accentuated where it meets the bottom of the windscreen. Apparently it’s also a feasible detail and one I hope they’ve kept for production. I ask, they wink, but can only give me the usual ‘wait and see’ line. Those two central bonnet points also lead the eye neatly back to the Mohican-style central glass panoramic roof before it joins without interruption to the glass of the rear tailgate. It’s a fantastic graphic, best appreciated from above.

The Vertrek is a massive change compared to the Escape but put a picture of it alongside the current Kuga and you’ll also see significant differences (for the better). The Vertrek shares some of the Kuga’s sloping roof and window line but it’s less wedgy overall and less fussy in the detail – you won’t find fat slices of chrome outlining every intake and grille for instance. It’s not conceptually crazy in any proportion either, as Lamm stresses: “We tried to capture the [real] package assumptions with this car. Designers usually tend to overstretch the package a bit.”

Despite such assertions, the car is not without its fun gadgetry – namely the remote-controlled electric carbon fibre step plate that glides out of the car’s side. Many of Ford’s US pick-up trucks already have manual versions of the same, but it’s nonetheless a smile-inducing concept touch that ushers us appropriately into the cabin. Sitting in the driver’s seat the dashboard layout will be familiar to anyone whose driven a Fiesta or indeed seen the new Focus at a motorshow. It’s not an unachievable interior designed more to wow than to work, but there is an ultra modern feel to it. This is the realm of chief interior designer, Ernst Reim. As he says, the challenge for his team was to get the perceived roominess of cars like the Escape into a mid-sized car but with the premium feel of a car in the class above “without using wood inserts and other expensive materials.”

Accordingly there’s no wood in the Vertrek and a pleasing simplicity to the centre console. Reim explains: “We concentrated on nicely executed details, like the little blister [indent] on the chrome buttons, together with touch screens and a little hidden fridge – everyone’s happy to have a little fridge on a long distance drive.” True indeed, Ernst. Further down the console is a starter button in the middle of a watch-style bezel that turns to select gears with eco and sport mode buttons either side.

For a second my mind conjures up an image of neon-trimmed lederhosen-clad hostesses posing with the car in Detroit. I shake my head to clear the thought

The four single seats – thin to accentuate interior space – mix sports and lounge styles, like Recaro sports bucket seats crossed with classic Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs. They’re comfortable too, especially clad in grey velour leather whose inspiration, chips in Smith, came from traditional Bavarian Lederhosen clothing, in this instance teamed up with hi-tech neon fluorescent piping. For a second my mind conjures up an image of neon-trimmed lederhosen-clad hostesses posing with the car in Detroit. I shake my head to clear the thought. Reim is now talking about the four-seater’s “quiet details and extreme sculpture”. Back in the room, I try to nod knowingly.  

For production the car will be a five-seater though – they’ll be no seven-seat versions – and the instrument panel will be clad in more formal clothes with a flat floor and lots of luggage space – one of the key criteria current Escape owners cherish and some Kuga owners crave more of. On the outside they’ll likely be some big door handles and wing mirrors, a more conventional roof, smaller wheels and less flashy front lights, but other than that, this car gives a fair impression of what you’ll get.

It wasn’t a day to talk powertrains (I asked but they didn’t) but expect 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol Eco Boost engines, a hybrid (the current Escape Hybrid is apparently a big hit with New York taxi drivers) and the usual array of cracking TDCi diesel units. And the name? Given the sheer weight of numbers already happy with their Escapes in the US, I’d put about 50p more on that name than Kuga, but it could get another moniker entirely, no-one’s letting on for now. Whatever its title, if the production car can keep enough of this concept’s class it should be a great-looking car (with class-leading driving characteristics), whether you live in Taunton, Torino or Tallahassee. And it should also be proof that mismatched parents – hello Escape and Kuga – can sometimes spawn a beautiful child, against all odds.  

 

Need to know

 

  • Ford Vertrek
  • Launched concept 2011 / production 2012 
  • Range Mid-sized crossover
  • Engines 1.6 and 2.0 Eco Boost plus hybrid and diesel
  • Price From £20k (est.)
  • Verdict Kuga/Escape lovechild is more heir apparent than bastard son. Qashqai beware 

 

 


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