If Ford Motor Co. dealers could have their way, the name “Escape” would live on indefinitely as the official moniker of the auto maker’s midsize cross/utility vehicle.

The current Escape is scheduled to be replaced by a version of the European Kuga CUV, which will be built at Ford’s Louisville, KY, assembly plant beginning in 2011, a source familiar with the matter tells Ward’s.

Since Ford has yet to make an official announcement on the Kuga’s arrival, it is unclear whether the auto maker is planning a name change as well.

If Ford were to rebadge the Escape as the Kuga, it would be throwing away a name with substantial brand recognition and potentially harming sales of one of the Blue Oval’s top sellers, several dealers tell Ward’s.

“I believe the Escape is a great vehicle with a great reputation and that it would be a big mistake to kill the Escape name,” says Owen Mossy, general manager of San Diego-based Mossy Ford.

Through November, Escape sales in the U.S. totaled 153,888, a 5.7% rise from year-ago, according to Ward’s data.

While changing the Escape name would be a misstep, Mossy says he really like the styling of the Kuga, which “seems to fit the profile of the kind of clients that are buying Escapes.”

Other dealers point to the ill-fated decision to drop the Ford Taurus name in 2006, replacing it with both the fullsize Five Hundred and midsize Fusion sedans.

The Taurus nameplate was resurrected by Ford CEO Alan Mulally shortly after he took the company helm in late 2006. Mulally hoped to give the slow-selling Five Hundred a sales jolt by restoring the Taurus name, arguing years of brand equity were being wasted.

“I would think Ford would keep the name Escape in the U.S. lineup,” says John Wiegers, dealer principal of Bob Allen Ford in Overland Park, KS. “We saw that renaming the Taurus as the Five Hundred did not work so well, so my bet is they keep the well-established Escape name.”

Kevin Collins, president-Bill Collins Ford in Louisville, also doubts Ford would adopt the Kuga name for the U.S. “I would doubt seriously that the company would repeat the lesson learned from the Taurus brand-equity position on any vehicle currently in our lineup.”

The Kuga, which shares Ford’s global C1 platform with the European-spec Focus and C-Max, went on sale in Europe early last year.

Its dimensions are nearly identical to the current Escape, although its wheelbase is 2.8 ins. (7.1 cm) longer and it is 101 lbs. (46 kg) heavier than an Escape equipped with a V-6.

In Europe, the Kuga is offered with a 2.0L common-rail diesel or a 2.5L turbocharged inline 5-cyl. engine. It comes standard in 2-wheel drive but is available with an optional all-wheel-drive system from Swedish supplier Haldex AB.

It is unclear which engine will be offered in the U.S., but Ford North American executives frequently have said there is yet to be a business case for diesels on this side of the Atlantic.

An AWD version likely will be offered in the U.S. Kuga model, but a Haldex spokeswoman tells Ward’s it will not supply the system. As such, expect the Kuga to have a system similar to the Ford-developed setup found on the current Escape.

Bringing the Kuga to the U.S. is part of the auto maker’s ongoing “One Ford” initiative, in which the company is attempting to better leverage its vast global resources.

Ford plans to offer a global version of its Focus C-car in the U.S. next year, as well as the Fiesta B-car. A U.S. version of the Grand C-Max CUV also is on tap, scheduled to debut in late 2011.

Tooling to produce the Kuga is being installed in Louisville, according to the unnamed source. The plant now builds the Mercury Mountaineer and Ford Explorer SUVs, as well as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac pickup.

In addition to producing the Kuga for the North American market, Louisville also is expected to build units for export, the source says.

Bloomberg reports upwards of 80,000 Kugas will be targeted for overseas, a proposition made more attractive due to the declining value of the dollar compared with the euro.

bpope@wardsauto.com