Propulsion comes in several forms including a 200-horsepower V6. It's quick and enjoyable and communicates very well with the automatic. The Escape is also available with a gas/electric hybrid system. The Escape Hybrid is one of the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicles in its class (see separate review) and driving one is easy and enjoyable, very little different from a regular Escape.
But the standard four-cylinder engine may be all you need. It was updated, beginning with 2005 models, and it offers decent power and works well with the automatic.
Four-wheel drive is also available, offering good wintry weather capability.
The Escape lineup has been broadened for 2006, but is otherwise unchanged. It was significantly revised for 2005, which brought a new face, a brightened interior, a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and a revised suspension.
Ford Escape XLS ($20,070); XLS 4WD ($21,820); XLT ($22,535); XLT 4WD ($24,285); XLT V6 ($24,880); XLT V6 4WD ($25,140); Limited ($24,930); Limited 4WD ($26,630); Hybrid ($26,900); Hybrid 4WD ($28,525)
Being able to see the leading edge of the hood from the driver's seat makes the Escape easier to maneuver in tight places. Its 7.8 inches of ground clearance may help clear some obstacles, but not big rocks. Outside door handles are easy to grab and feel like they're going to last.
The styling was freshened for 2005 with new headlamps, new fog lamps, a new egg-crate grille, new fascias, revised bumpers, and new wheels. The result of all this was a fresher, more contemporary look for Escape.
Accessories from Ford Outfitters include a snap-in pet barrier and a system to haul two mountain bikes in the cargo area. Bike racks can also be mounted on the roof; the standard roof rack with crossbars holds up to 100 pounds. Foot rails are designed to make it easier to lift kayaks, snowboards and other toys onto the roof rack. The rear bumper is also designed to aid roof access.
The No Boundaries Rack System features a sliding rail that can be repositioned from the roof to the rear of the vehicle, locking into the bumper. This provides two separate loading surfaces: a traditional roof rack and a vertically oriented rack across the rear. When not in use, the sliding rails can be stored within the conventional roof portion of the rack system.
A redesign of the interior for 2005 brought upgraded seats, new fabrics, new gauges, and more interior storage. The shifter on automatic models was moved off of the column and onto the floor. Illuminated switches for the power windows and power locks made them easier to find.
White-faced instruments are set in a simple, easy-to-understand instrument panel. The audio system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls in the center stack are angled slightly toward the driver for easier access while driving.
Side-impact airbags are optional, and are part of a Safety Package that includes Ford's Safety Canopy rollover protection system. Pretensioners combined with load-limiting retractors are standard on front-seat belts. In a crash, these pretensioners automatically tighten the belts, while the load limiters are designed to reduce the risk of chest injuries in severe collisions. We strongly recommend always wearing seatbelts as they are the first line of defense in a crash; more than half of the nation's approximately 42,000 traffic fatalities each year are people not wearing seatbelts.
The rear seats offer good knee room. The rear seats are split 60/40 for greater versatility.
The rear cargo area offers 69.2 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded down, 33 cubic feet with the seats in place. The rear-seat cushion can be removed for more load-carrying capacity. The flip-up rear glass offers easy access to the rear cargo area for small items.
We've found the Escape handles well. The steering is responsive, direct and accurate with no dead spot in the center, and there's enough feeling in the steering to impart a sense of control. The tires offer respectable grip in paved corners. Transient response is surprisingly good, meaning the Escape maintains its composure in a series of left-right-left lane-change maneuvers. This permits quick, yet smooth, driving that will not upset passengers.
The 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine offers good power, decent torque (that force that propels you from intersections and up hills), very low emissions. And we found it to be a good match for the automatic transmission. The 2.3-liter engine produces 153 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque. It uses a balance shaft for smoothness.
The 3.0-liter V6 engine delivers stronger acceleration performance and we don't pine for power in a V6 Escape. The V6 and four-speed automatic communicate and work well together. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down, and chooses gears appropriately for the situation. The engine's broad power band never lugs or strains. This is neither the smoothest nor the roughest V6 on the market, but it is smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found in most compact sport-utilities.
We found the anti-lock brakes smooth and responsive. Drum brakes are used on the rear of all but V6 4WD models, which are upgraded with four-wheel disc brakes. While drum brakes are less expensive, disc brakes dissipate heat better, useful when braking frequently for long, downhill descents. ABS comes into play just when expected and is detectable by the familiar pulsating sensation in the brake pedal. ABS allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in an emergency avoidance maneuver. Brake Assist is designed to assist the driver by maintaining full braking power when it senses the driver has mistakenly relaxed pressure on the brake pedal in an emergency stopping situation. Also added is electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) for more effective, more stable braking.
Noise, vibration and harshness is well within expectations. Noise reducing measures were upgraded beginning with the 2005 models, helping further reduce interior noise.
We found the Escape comfortable over a variety of on-road surfaces, eruptions and potholes. And this is where most Escapes live. Off road, we found the Escape a bit lacking. Even though it's available with four-wheel drive, it's based on a front-wheel-drive platform. (As with most compact SUVs, the 2WD models are front-wheel drive.) Rough, loose, steep trails leave it spinning its wheels. The suspension does not have the articulation needed for rugged terrain, there is no low-range set of gears, nor is the traction system that sophisticated. For everyday road travel, however, the Ford Escape is an excellent choice. It rides better and handles better than the Jeep Liberty, which is more capable off road.
Snow is not a big problem for the Escape, however. The automatic Intelligent 4WD System provides excellent traction and stability in slippery conditions. The computer-controlled system operates so seamlessly that its engagement is barely noticeable to most drivers, and it's a smooth, fuel-efficient system.
Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds when equipped with the V6 and the Class II towing package; otherwise, it's 1,500 pounds.
Ford Escape is solid choice among compact sport utilities for on-road use. It has a roomy interior, comfortable and convenient with useful cargo capacity. The four-cylinder engine delivers plenty of power for most needs, even with the four-speed automatic. The available V6 engine delivers strong power. A four-wheel independent suspension and unit-body construction make it ride and handle almost as well as a car. It isn't designed for rugged terrain, though it's fine for gravel roads.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw is based in Dearborn.