Escaping The Past
There was nothing substantially wrong with the old Ford Escape, other than how old it was. To be fair, it was updated just a few years ago, but next to Ford‘s latest products, the Escape looked practically ancient.
I use the word “looked” specifically, because it’s the most obvious issue. The blocky, two-box style simply looks out-of-date. The interior also looked like it was designed in the middle of the last decade, and the materials quality looked on-par with that era as well. A lot has changed in the past few years, at Ford especially, and change has finally come to the Escape in a big way.
For starters, this new Escape looks nothing like the old Escape, though if a lack of continuity is its biggest problem, Ford has little to worry about. And it doesn’t. This new Escape, an evolution of Europe’s Kuga, is a very good crossover. On paper, Ford promises more cargo space, more passenger space, and better fuel economy. On the road, it delivers more than that.
So what if there’s no visual connection between this curvy new Escape and the old, miniaturized version of the out-of-vogue Expedition? A few will complain that this new car looks less macho, but the heart-of-market buyers who actually put their money where their mouth is have spoken, and the big, beefy SUV style is out. Car-like crossovers are in, and this Escape may as well be a lifted Focus, because not only does it not look like an old Escape, but it doesn’t drive like one, either.
I make the comparison to the Focus by way of compliment, not disparagement. One of the Focus’ strong suits is its handling, and this new Escape drives very much like a tall Focus. You don’t normally expect soccer shuttle crossovers to handle very well, but this one does. Body motion is very well-controlled and the chassis is very difficult to upset, thanks in no small part to Ford’s army of computers. On top of traction and stability control, the Escape also gets brake-based torque vectoring and “Curve Control,” which brakes the inside wheel in a turn to send power to the outside wheel and pull you around the turn more quickly. If you pay very close attention when pushing the Escape hard into a corner, you can just barely feel it working. It’s a slightly odd sensation, but when added to the buttoned-down chassis and grippy tires, a driver of any skill level can feel like a pro.
The trade-off is a surprisingly firm ride, which Ford says is intentional. Company representatives say lately their customers prefer a firmer, sportier ride and better handling. It’s convenient, then, that the Escape’s European roots show through in the stiffer suspension. While the ride is less comfortable than expected, the impacts are never sharp or violent. Instead of being soaked up in the shocks, they’re transmitted to the rest of the vehicle. I did find that the loaded, all-wheel-drive Titanium model seemed to ride better than the front-wheel-drive, mid-range SE. A Ford engineer tells me the SE’s several-hundred-pound-lighter curb weight is the culprit, allowing the vehicle to bounce over bumps more rather than press the suspension into them.
Also slightly disappointing was the Escape’s steering. While it gets high marks for its quick ratio and linear response, there’s simply no road feel in it. I’d forgive that, given that it’s a crossover, but the steering also has the misfortune of feeling elastic and artificial, like Hyundai steering systems I’ve criticized in the past, though not as bad. The average consumer might not notice, but the driver with a Mustang on the other side of the garage might find it a bit off-putting.
No such issue with the brakes. The Escape’s brake feel is solid and linear. Pedal pressure corresponds nicely to brake force, making them easy to modulate and confidence-inspiring.
To get any use from those brakes, a good engine is in order. I was able to test both EcoBoost variants of the Escape, utilizing the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine in the SE and the turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Titanium. Both made use of a six-speed automatic transmission with a sport mode and manual shifting option. The base, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder and four-cylinder hybrid were not available.
While I expected the powerful 2.0-liter motor to be good, the little 1.6-liter engine was a pleasant surprise. I’d worried it would be too small for weight it has to carry, but found no such issue on the road. It’s no sports car, but little turbo four provided more than adequate power for whatever we threw at it, from hills to freeway on-ramps and overtaking. My only complaint is the non-linear power, as Ford’s programmed in an aggressive throttle tip-in to get you off the line, which has the side effect of making it feel sluggish and flat through the mid-range. Get the revs up, though, and the little engine really starts to cook. I found that dropping it into Sport mode does a pretty good job of eliminating the flat spot, at the obvious cost of fuel economy.
The 2.0-liter motor tells a similar tale, but with more power. On the road, that means less of a plateau in the mid-range as the extra power and torque make up for the drop-off after the aggressive tip-in. Get the RPMs up and the 2.0 really comes to life, hurtling the Escape down the road with authority. If you want to go fast, the 2.0 is clearly the way to go, but I suspect most buyers will be perfectly happy with the 1.6 and its slightly better fuel economy.
Both use a standard six-speed automatic transmission that, while programmed for fuel economy, is happy to downshift as needed to access the power. It prefers to just drop one gear, but if you really want to get moving, you’ll have to give the pedal a kick and get it down another gear or two, or simply use the manual shifting buttons on the shifter. They’re a little slow to respond, but they do what they’re told. The Sport mode does a pretty good job of holding gears and downshifting sooner to keep the boil on.
When you’re not hustling it, the Escape is a nice place to spend a long drive. Anyone familiar with the Focus’ interior will instantly recognize the Escape’s. Much of the dash and instrument panel are the same, as is the steering wheel. The front seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered for a little bit of performance driving when the situation calls for it. Like the Focus, the area around the driver’s right knee is a little tight, but manageable. Even the lower-trim SE is remarkably quiet inside even at freeway speed, with just a bit of wind noise from the side mirrors and the distant thrum of the tires on the pavement. The engine doesn’t sound great, sort of an angry hum, but it’s not bothersome. MyFord Touch is optional and seems to be working better than ever, but is still hard to read at a glance.
The rear seats, meanwhile, are split-folding park benches with nice upholstery. They also sit high, which means there isn’t much headroom for taller passengers. Reclining the rear seatbacks helps, though it impedes slightly on the cargo area. That space is fairly large and features a split-level load floor. While the rear seats fold flat, they sit about two inches higher than the cargo floor, creating a small ledge. Ford’s solution is a lip that brings the cargo floor even with the folded seats, but the cargo floor is then slightly angled, so round items may roll out the back while you’re loading or unloading.
With all models projected to meet or exceed 30 mpg on the highway, the new Escape is a force to be reckoned with. It’s priced directly in line with the completion and slightly less than the outgoing model; it’s got more space than before; it can tow up to 3500 pounds; and it’s more fun to drive than most of the class. On its own merits, the new Escape is an impressive crossover and likely to be a hot seller for Ford. How will it stack up against the competition in the real world? Stand by for the comparison test.
|2013 FORD ESCAPE SE AND TITANIUM|
|Vehicle layout||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|Engines||1.6L/178-hp/184-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.0L/240-hp/270-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|Curb weight||3500-3750 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||178.1 x 72.4 x 66.3 in|
|0-60 mph||6.0-8.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||21-23/30-33 mpg (est)|
|CO2 emissions||0.75-0.80 lb/mile (est)|
|Energy Cons., City/Hwy||147-160/102-112 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|On sale in U.S.||May 2012|