The Ford Escape looks like a little truck among small SUVs. Its styling reminds us of Ford's larger, truck-based sport utility vehicles. The Escape's ride height and seating position are a bit higher than competitors such as the Honda CR-V, and it can tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is substantially more than most other vehicles in the class.
Yet the Ford Escape still delivers the advantages of unit-body, car-based competitors such as the Honda CR-V. Its smooth ride and agile handling make for enjoyable driving, and its compact dimensions make the Escape easy to park.
The standard four-cylinder engine is adequate for all-purpose driving while the V6 offers quicker acceleration performance. All variants, including the V6 and Escape Hybrid, deliver some of the best EPA mileage ratings in the class. All models are offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
For the most part, the Hybrid drives just like a conventional gas-only Escape. It's a well-executed package. It offers better fuel economy and lower emissions but demands little additional effort or knowledge from the driver.
The Escape provides comfortable seating for four, or five in a pinch. Folding the rear seats opens a good sized cargo area with a flat floor, and space behind the seat surpasses that in the trunk of a typical sedan. There are lots of interior storage spaces, the finish is upscale and pleasing, and feature function and switches are among the best.
Escape was redesigned for 2008. For 2010, changes are minor. An Integrated Blind Spot Mirror, MyKey programmable vehicle key, Rear View Camera System, and Active Park Assist are now available, and the Escape also features hands-free SYNC with Traffic, Directions & Information. All the features improve safety and reduce driver distractions.
The Ford Escape remains one of the more appealing vehicles in its class, regardless of price, and certainly one of the better values. Those shopping for a small SUV should put it on their short list, especially those who appreciate its big-truck styling.
Ford Escape XLS ($20,515); XLS 4WD ($22,265); XLT ($23,540); XLT 4WD ($25,290); Limited ($25,270); Limited 4WD ($27,020); Hybrid ($29,750); Hybrid 4WD ($31,500); Limited Hybrid ($32,260); Limited Hybrid 4WD ($34,010)
The Escape has the air of a conventional, truck-based SUV, with a more rugged look than many other small, sedan-platform sport-utilities such as the Honda CR-V. For starters, the Escape sits a bit higher than many competitors, and the high profile is enhanced by its design.
The grille looks like it was designed for a truck. The headlights are essentially connected to the grille, and shaped to create a family resemblance with Ford's Edge crossover SUV. Yet the grille itself is tall and flat and stacked right on top of a skid plate-type fascia that flows under the bumper. The Escape's beltline, or the crease that runs just under the windows, is high, too, and its roof pillars are blacked out. The taillights have a clear band that wraps around the rear corners. The lower bumpers and rocker panels are now painted to match the body on all models, rather than molded in a matte finish. In total, the effect is cleaner and more polished than previous models, and it's all quite handsome.
The side mirrors are large, but their shape generates little noise as air speeds over them. The roof, too, is designed to reduce interior noise. Recessed channels running its length are intended to move air more quietly over the surface. Horizontal ribs underneath the panel add structure, which limits flex in the metal and reduces booming noise inside at high speeds.
We're fond of a couple of features in back of the Escape. A new step pad on the bumper provides secure footing for anyone who steps up to put something on the roof rack, and the two-piece tailgate is handy. The rear glass can be popped open with the key fob, so dropping small items like a gym bag into the cargo area is much easier than it might be with some competitors, which require hefting the entire gate upward.
This is one of Ford's best interiors in terms of the look and feel of materials used. The headliner is plush and molded to the contour of the roof. Our Escape Limited had thick, tautly tailored leather on the seats and hard, glossy black plastic where you might expect fake wood or metal. It looked like the lacquered finish on a fine piano. The satiny black or silver used in lower trim levels isn't bad, either. Yet the highlight is a woven-look, rubberized trim on the dash and console. It looks sporty and suited to a more expensive car.
The Escape features upholstery cloth made from 100-percent recycled material. You'd never know by its look or feel, and Ford claims that compared to upholstery made from virgin fiber, production will conserve about 600,000 gallons of water and 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 million pounds.
The Escape's front seats have enough cushion and support to limit fatigue during longer drives. Overall, though, the seats are smaller than those in a larger sport utility. Drivers with big frames might find them small. There's not an abundance of side bolstering, but that makes it easier to slide into the seats, and there's enough to keep occupants solidly in place during the type of driving a typical Escape owner is likely to undertake.
The gauges are clustered in a shaded binnacle that can be absorbed in a glance: Tachometer left, speedometer right, with fuel and coolant temperature in the middle, along with an easy-to-read trip- and systems-info display. We absolutely loved this, because it includes a menu that allows the driver to easily cycle through and change features such as headlight-off delay and auto-locking.
The gauges and switches feature Ford's new signature backlighting style, which the company calls Ice Blue. No gripe here, as the bluish white is crisper and brighter than conventional green-yellow or orange lighting. The problem is the script on the gauges, and particularly the speedometer. It's muddled and lacks differentiation beyond the big even numbers, so it's hard to tell quickly what speed you're driving unless you are traveling precisely at 20, 40, or 60 mph.
The dashboard is tall and squarish, but it's attractive and fits the Escape's little-truck theme nicely. The big vents at the ends move lots of air, and there are two more in the middle near the top of the center stack. These can be aimed to avoid blasting the driver’s hands or face with a rush of air. At the very top sits a neat display that shows compass heading, date and time, exterior temperature and, on models so equipped, the two interior temp settings.
When it comes to placement and function of switches, the Escape is first rate, and examples are easy to find. When the driver rests his or her left forearm on the door rest, the window buttons sit almost perfectly at the fingertips. With elbows on the door rest and center console, arms are even and hands rest nicely at nine and three o'clock on the steering wheel. The mirror adjustor sits on the door pillar, and it's easy to reach when the driver's head is in driving position. One easy-to-use stalk controls the blinkers and all wiper/washer functions. The steering wheel controls for cruise and audio work without moving hands from the driving position.
Audio and climate controls work just as well. The volume and station-selector knobs are good sized, but more important, they are raised substantially from the stereo plate, rather than nearly flat to the surface as they are in some vehicles. The radial switches for fan and temperature are also big and easy to find. The pushbuttons to control airflow direction and the rear defogger are small, but they tend to be adjusted less frequently than the others. The audio jack is at the bottom of the center stack, just above a lined bin where you can set an iPod with reasonable assurance that it will stay put for the entire trip home.
The Escape Limited we drove had Ford's optional touch-screen navigation system, which is becoming one of our favorites from any manufacturer. Its biggest weakness is the display screen, which is smaller than those in some other vehicles. Yet the graphics are clear, and easy to read to the smaller details, at night or wearing sunglasses in bright daylight. More important, the system is easy to use with minimal distraction, and easy to learn. It's an expensive tool, to be sure, but we particularly recommend the navigation system with the Escape Hybrid. In the Hybrid, it includes an energy display that demonstrates in real-time the fuel-saving benefits of hybrid drive. By paying some attention to the graphs, you'll find yourself becoming a more environmentally friendly and fiscally efficient motorist. It can be fun to see how efficiently you can drive.
Storage space is aplenty in the Escape, at least in terms of cubbies within reach of the front passengers. Start with that rubber-lined, slide-proof bin in front of the shifter, which is great for iPods, phones, glasses, a wallet or change. The little rubber mats in this bin and in the cup holder bins can be pulled out for cleaning, a nice feature. Swing-down overhead bins are provided for sunglasses and garage door openers. The glove box is big enough for stuff beyond the owner's manual. Decent-sized bins are molded in the door bottoms, though whatever goes there tends to slide. The crown jewel is the center console, which allows stacking of smaller items inside.
The back seats are comfortable, though the seatback is too straight for some tastes. There's plenty of knee room, and noticeably more headroom than before. A 5-foot, 9-inch, 170-pound passenger stayed comfortable for nearly on hour behind the driver, though the middle space works best for six-year-olds. There are cup holders and a power point on the back of the console, but storage space for rear passengers is limited to those slide-prone bins at the bottoms of the rear doors.
Cargo capacity is 66.3 cubic feet, with 29.2 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and the cargo space is easy to access. The rear seat folds quickly, 60/40, and the bottom can be removed to make a perfectly flat load floor. There aren't a lot of frills in back, but the essentials are there: Tie-downs, and an optional cargo shade and under-floor bin that's deep enough for a small load of groceries.
Ford invested a lot of time and money making the Escape quiet inside. The windshield, for example, has an acoustic laminate sandwiched between two layers of glass. The headliner has extensive sound-deadening capability, and the carpeting is quite thick. The net result is a quiet, relaxing interior.
The Escape is truckish as the current crop of small sport utility vehicles go, but not in a bad way. Its ride height and seating position are higher than a lot of unit-body (sedan style) utilities, though lower than many traditional truck-based SUVs.
The Escape is quite pleasant to drive. It handles well and has a firm, comfortable ride, without the roly-poly mush quality or the jarring suspension clanks that can characterize conventional truck-based SUVs with tall, off-road tires. An electric power steering system and careful suspension tuning give a level of refinement in ride and handling.
The engines are all solid performers. Both the four- and six-cylinder engine deliver good response and decent acceleration. The Escape Hybrid delivers essentially the same performance, with very little to give away its hybrid powertrain except improved mileage. Indeed, all Escape models, from front-wheel-drive four-cylinders to all-wheel-drive V6s to the Hybrid, have some of the best EPA mileage ratings in the class.
The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers good power at high revs for those who like to wind it up and decent torque for acceleration when you need it at any speed. With a balance shaft to offset vibration, it's also smoother than some of Ford's previous four-cylinder engines. We prefer the 171-hp four-cylinder with the five-speed manual transmission; indeed, a front-drive, manual Escape XLS 2WD might be the most engaging and enjoyable model to drive. At an EPA-estimated 22/28 mpg City/Highway, it has one of the highest EPA mileage ratings of any non-hybrid SUV. With the four-cylinder, maximum towing capacity is 1,500 pounds, sufficient for dirt bikes or a snowmobile.
The 3.0-liter V6 engine offers 240 horsepower for stronger acceleration. It has about as much torque as any small SUV is likely to need. It's available only with the six-speed automatic, but its power band is broad. In day-to-day driving, it never lugs, strains or feels as if it's out of breath. And with the optional Class II towing package, the V6 AWD models can pull a substantial 3,500 pounds, which surpasses most vehicles in this class.
Both the four-cylinder and the V6 engines are matched with a very smooth, electronically controlled six-speed automatic, which offers ideal ratios for all vehicle speeds and contributes to the Escape’s exceptional fuel economy.
The Escape handles well. One reason is the electric power-assisted steering system (EPS), which operates with an electric motor rather than a hydraulic pump driven by the engine. One of the advantages is increased efficiency, because a conventional, belt-driven steering pump takes a bit of the engine's power just to operate. That's power that's not being used to move the vehicle. Another advantage, at least in the Escape's case, is improved steering feel. With the electric steering, there's a nice balance between steering assist at parking-lot speeds and decent feel on the highway. The steering tracks steadily, with little adjustment or correction required over uneven surfaces. It's direct and accurate with no dead spot in the center, and there's enough feeling when you turn the wheel to impart a sense of control. Despite its truck-style facade, the Escape delivers a ride and handling balance on par with many sedans. Its ride is comfortable, but never wobbly or floaty, over a variety of road surfaces, including expansion joints and shallow potholes. The tires deliver respectable grip in paved corners, so the Escape stays planted where a lot of SUVs might slide. Transient response is surprisingly good, meaning the Escape maintains its composure in a series of left-right-left lane-change maneuvers. This permits quicker driving that is also smooth, and it won't make passengers feel sea-sick.
Braking performance is good. The Escape stops in plenty of time, with no brake fade in any typical on-road driving circumstances. The anti-lock brake system is well tuned, keeping the brakes right at the threshold between maximum stopping force and wheel lock, and allowing the driver to maintain steering control in a full-panic stop.
The Escape Hybrid is a different beast entirely from the gasoline-only models, at least on one hand. On the other, few drivers will notice any substantial, functional differences with the hybrid powertrain in day-to-day driving. Its battery pack is automatically recharged by the gasoline engine and by regenerative braking, which captures energy that is otherwise wasted when a vehicle loses momentum and sends it to the batteries.
By combining a four-cylinder gasoline engine with the boost from an electric motor, the Hybrid can deliver a significant fuel-economy improvement and reduce emissions. The Escape Hybrid is a full hybrid, meaning it can run on 100 percent electric power up to about 25 mph to maximize in-city fuel economy. It was the first hybrid-powered SUV available in the United States, and the first hybrid with optional all-wheel drive and significant towing capacity (1,000 pounds).
The Hybrid's primary source of power remains the gasoline engine. It's nearly identical to the 2.5-liter four in gasoline-only models, except that it runs on something called the Atkinson cycle, which improves its fuel efficiency. The companion, 70-kilowatt electric motor can kick in and deliver more torque to the wheels when a driver demands full acceleration or it can power the Escape Hybrid by itself in certain circumstances, such as creeping along in a traffic jam or rolling through a parking lot. Bottom line, the Hybrid model delivers acceleration times comparable to the gas-only V6, with terrific fuel economy of 34/31 mpg City/Highway for the Hybrid 2WD.
On the road, the Escape Hybrid delivers excellent acceleration at lower speeds. Floor it at 20 mph, and it will snap heads back toward the head rests. Floor the Hybrid 2WD at a stop sign, and it can squeal its front tires like a hot rod. To be sure, its tires are harder than those on other Escapes and designed for maximum efficiency, which means less rolling resistance, and less grip.
Few drivers will notice any significant difference between the Hybrid and a conventional Escape, except when the Hybrid shuts itself off at stop lights or glides quietly through a parking lot on electric power. Indeed, the Hybrid is a bit quieter, probably smoother, in all circumstances. In order to minimize the power lost as it transfers to the drive wheels, Ford equips the Escape Hybrid with a continuously variable transmission, which has no conventional gears. Instead, it has metal bands that adjust to best match the engine's speed to vehicle speed. The CVT does offer a low-range setting for increased traction. But in typical driving, there's no hesitation as “gear” ratios shift, no uneven surges of speed and less variance in the noise coming from under the hood as the car picks up speed. There's just smooth, even acceleration.
With the stereo cranked up to hide engine noise, a driver will have a hard time knowing when the gas engine starts or shuts off at stop lights, when the Hybrid is rolling along on electric power alone, or when the electric motor is augmenting the gas engine for maximum acceleration
We're not sure what protocol determines when the Escape Hybrid operates on electric power. In fact, it seemed to operate in electric mode less frequently than we might have expected. At times the gas engine ran when we thought it might not have to, and at times it didn't even shut off at a stop light. For the most part, we drove the Hybrid as we would any other test car, which is fairly aggressively, using the accelerator as if someone else was buying the gas, and we still saw some improvement in fuel economy.
Our normal rounds include more city than highway driving, though rarely in a true rush-hour traffic flog, plus a few extracurricular, test-specific maneuvers. In this routine, by our best calculation, we found an improvement of 10 to 12 percent over what we've seen with a conventional four-cylinder. We expect most consumers will get better fuel economy than we did, at least those with long, traffic-laden commutes. Still, the real-world fuel savings with a hybrid depend heavily on how, where and when you drive. For guestimation, EPA mileage numbers may be the best tool, and the Escape Hybrid still surpasses the other hybrid SUVs that have followed it to the market.
If you want the best fuel economy, and presumably most hybrid buyers will, you'll want to be gentle on the gas pedal. It will maximize the instances when the Escape travels only on electric power. Dip the pedal quickly, or much past a quarter of its travel, and the gas engine restarts immediately to provide what the control electronics determine to be a demand for serious acceleration. Even if a driver is not going to exceed 20 mph, which is well within the limit of electric-only speed, the gas engine will start if the pedal application is too strong. It probably helps to stop slowly, too. Long, steady, coast-down stops, using more engine compression than wheel brakes, are best for charging the batteries. We surmise that short, quick stops from road speeds may be what keep the engine from shutting off at a red light. The control system may sense aggressive stops as emergencies, or just sporting, aggressive driving, and leave the engine running for more action.
You'll want the optional navigation system for the Hybrid, which includes an energy meter function that graphically illustrates how well you're doing at saving fuel. It includes instantaneous and average fuel economy readouts, and tells you when the gas engine is running, when the electric motor is doing the work and when the batteries are charging. It's a good tool to learn how to maximize economy with the Escape Hybrid.
Regardless of powertrain, the Escape makes an excellent all-season vehicle in all climates. It does not make an excellent off-road vehicle, despite a bit more ground clearance than some competitors. Ford's optional all-wheel drive (AWD) system is tuned for driving more on slippery pavement than dirt or gravel. It delivers engine power to the appropriate wheels before any particular wheel can loose traction. It can switch power front to rear or side to side, and theoretically can send 100 percent of the engine’s power to either the front or rear wheels. The all-wheel-drive system takes stress out of driving on wet, slushy or snowy roads. It helps maximize forward progress on slippery surfaces, and its transfer of power to wheels with the best traction is rarely noticed by the driver, who can focus simply on using the gas smoothly and steering between the lines.
Off road, the Escape is less than stellar. It's built on a front-wheel-drive platform developed primarily for sedans, and like most small SUVs, the 2WD models are front-wheel drive. With caution, it can handle level gravel or dirt trails. But if there is no graded path, forget about it, and if the way is much steeper than you'd attempt in a car, forget about that, too. Shoppers seeking a small SUV with real off-road potential should consider a competitor like the Jeep Liberty. For every-day driving and travel on the road, the Escape is one of the best.
The Ford Escape is one of the best vehicles in Ford's lineup, and competitive in a crowded field of small sport-utilities, regardless of price. Yet model for model and feature for feature, the Escape prices are very good. The Escape offers front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, competitive four- or six-cylinder engines and the Hybrid package, which works essentially as the conventional models do. Fuel mileage for all models, and towing capacity, rank with the best. For all-purpose, reasonably efficient daily transport on the road, the Escape rates among the best smaller SUVs.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino test drove the Ford Escape in Detroit.