DETROIT – The Ford Vertrek concept vehicle unveiled at the North American International Auto Show here today is a strong indicator of what the replacement for both the Escape and Kuga cross/utility vehicles will look like, top officials say.

The Escape is sold in North America and the more-stylish Kuga in Europe, but Ford is expected to merge the two into one global offering when both are refreshed next year.

Doing so would allow the auto maker to leverage economies of scale, as the Vertrek is based on Ford’s new global C-car platform, which it says will underpin more than 2 million of its vehicles worldwide by 2012.

J Mays, Ford group vice president-design and chief creative officer, stops short of saying the Vertrek will replace the Escape and Kuga, but provides a strong hint.

“I don’t think (consumers) will) be disappointed when they see the production car on the road,” Mays tells Ward’s. “It’s a radical departure from (the) Escape, but the Escape customers we’ve shown it to are very happy.”

Ford in a statement underscores Mays’ comments, saying the Vertrek represents “the vision of the company’s top design and engineering talent on how best to attract and satisfy future sport-utility-vehicle customers around the world.”

Further, the auto maker says the Vertrek’s sleek exterior is 5% more aerodynamic than its two predecessors, providing better fuel economy and lower carbon-dioxide emissions.

While the car-based Escape and Kuga have proven successful in their respective markets, Ford research indicates there is growing global demand for C-segment CUVs.

In the U.S., where compact CUVs are among the best-selling segments, the Escape has more than doubled its market share since 2000. In Europe, where the segment ranks among the top five and has more than doubled its share since 2000, the Kuga consistently has held the No.3 sales position since launching in 2008.

In the all-important Chinese market, the compact CUV segment is projected to increase 60% this year, compared with 2009, Ford says.

“This segment is uniquely diversified around the globe,” Jim Farley, group vice president, global marketing, sales and service, says in a statement. “In the U.S., these are considered small cars, while in Europe and other markets they are considered midsize cars.

“No matter how you classify it, the segment is vitally important; and only those manufacturers who demonstrate leadership in design, customer-focused technology, capability and fuel-efficient performance will succeed.”

Ford’s show concept is powered by a 1.6L direct-injected 4-cyl. turbocharged EcoBoost engine, but the Vertrek also could be fitted with a 2.0L Duratorq diesel mill. About 96% of Kugas are diesel-powered, the auto maker says.

The Vertrek features Ford’s fuel-saving stop/start technology, which shuts down the engine when the vehicle is idle and quickly restarts it when the driver hits the accelerator.

The concept CUV borrows its regenerative braking system from Ford’s hybrid-electric vehicles, which captures kinetic energy and funnels it into the battery, assisting stop/start.

If the Vertrek, or a version of it, is to replace the Escape and Kuga, as expected, Ford will need to hammer out what name to use.

“Name recognition for (the) Escape today in the U.S. is very high, as it is for Kuga,” Mays says. “We’re working through it. It’s not an enormous problem, but a decision we’d have to make.”

bpope@wardsauto.com