At the US launch of the Maverick, Ford US bosses stressed that the new car had been designed with the realisation that customers were not interested in roughing the car up in knee-deep bogs.
Amid claims the SUV would not compete with the Freelander from Land Rover, which Ford now owns, Don Ufford, Ford US vehicle engineering manager, said: 'The Maverick was designed to have good manoeuvrability and on-road handling. Customer research showed us that people won't be going across rocks in it, but wanted a vehicle capable of handling dirt tracks. We're looking to compete with the Honda CR-V, rather than the Freelander, which has a strong off-road reputation.'
Central to achieving the on-road performance will be the choice of two petrol engines, the 2.0-litre 16-valve and 3.0-litre V6, both in 4x4 configuration only. A diesel variant is likely to follow later.
Built on a platform developed with Ford-subsidiary Mazda, the Maverick's 'unibody' construction is designed to offer low noise levels and vibration, alongside 'sporty' handling, tight and responsive steering, four-wheel independent suspension and ABS with electronic brake force distribution.
Ford's new Control Trak II four-wheel drive system automatically delivers more torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. The car is likely to be introduced in the UK and Europe, as in the US, in two trim levels XLS and XLT. The XLS looks set to have as standard such features as air conditioning, single-CD player, remote keyless entry, integrated bumper guards, roof rack, dual front airbags and side airbags, Securilock immobiliser, and power windows, mirrors and locks. The XLT is likely to add items such as alloy wheels, retractable cargo area cover, alarm, fog lamps reclining 60/40 split bench rear seat and rear power point.
On the strength of the model tested, Ford has produced a vehicle that should refresh its reputation in the SUV market that has suffered a slump because of the original Maverick's lacklustre performance as either on or off-roader. Ford has taken to actively discouraging driving the car in taxing conditions. On the launch with a Ford representative in the back I was told to avoid real off-roading, but stick to the muddied and only slightly rutted path. The Maverick coped manfully with these, although it did struggle slightly up a grassy incline of about 40 degrees, but didn't ground itself.
However, accepting Ford's advice and putting the car through its paces on-road, it proves three years of work has been worth it. The Maverick has highly-responsive car-like handling with very little body roll on tight bends thanks to the MacPherson suspension.
In the States the Maverick XLS will cost $18,160 (£12,175) and the XLT $21,335 (£14,304). However, UK prices are unlikely to be so low. A spokesman said it would cost between £17,000 and £22,000, close to the pricing of its predecessor, which sold for between £17,650 and £21,450.
Ford has also revealed plans to launch what it claims is the first 'mainstream' hybrid electric vehicle, the Maverick HEV - closely followed by other alternatively fuelled vehicles that should appeal directly to the UK fleet market.
The HEV will feature an electric drive-train augmenting the four-cylinder petrol engine which the manufacturer promises will be the 'most fuel efficient and clean-operating SUV available'.
The vehicle is expected to achieve 40mpg - almost twice that of the petrol Maverick - but with V6 performance. And the crucial news to fleets facing the carbon dioxide-based benefit-in-kind tax system from 2002 is that hot on the heels of the hybrid Maverick will be two other electric/petrol vehicles which together with the new SUV, emit considerably less CO2 than conventionally-powered cars.
A spokesman for Ford in the US said: 'As the hybrid technology is developed we will be looking to use it in other vehicles, in particular a family-sized saloon, and within a year of the Maverick there will be an addition to our line-up.'
Prabhakar Patil, an expert in hybrid technology with Ford in the US, said at the Stateside launch of the Maverick: 'Electric hybrid technology represents a milestone in terms of extension of the range a vehicle can do on a tank of fuel and emission reductions. The HEV will have a fuel economy of 40mpg during city driving, compared to 28mpg in the 2.0-litre petrol, combined with a 50-60% reduction in CO2 emissions.'
CO2 emissions for the HEV will be 144g/km compared to the 2.0-litre petrol with 226g/km and 3.0-litre, 228g/km. This would see the Maverick driver choosing an HEV taxed at 15% of its list price under the new CO2-based BIK regime whereas choosing petrol would mean paying 27%. On a full tank the HEV will be able to do 500 miles.
The hybrid technology will come at a price premium. Patil said the HEV would be about $3,000 (£2,000) more expensive than the petrol version. 'Even then Ford will be subsidising the vehicle. But we are working hard to bring the costs down because we cannot afford to sell vehicles at a loss,' he said.