A total redesign of the Ford Escape for 2013 moved the top-selling compact SUV into the contemporary era, courtesy of high-tech small engines, a smooth 6-speed transmission, aerodynamic front styling, and electronic wizardry. Ford claimed 11 features exclusive to the Escape in the compact SUV class: everything from a capless fuel nozzle to Torque Vectoring Control, which helps the Escape corner more securely.
Changes for the 2014 model year are modest, but worth noting. The 2014 Escape offers three model choices: Escape S, Escape SE, and Escape Titanium. (The previous SEL edition is gone.) A four-way manual passenger seat is standard in all 2014 Escape models; so is a rearview camera. 2014 Escape Titanium models have full leather-trimmed seats, as well as 18-inch wheels of sparkle nickel-plated aluminum. Ford SYNC, a voice-activated communications and entertainment system, is available with AppLink on the 2014 Escape. Late in the 2014 Escape model year, Ford's hands-free liftgate will be available with the Class II trailer-tow package so you won't have to choose between the two of them.
Fuel economy ranges from an EPA-estimated 23/32 mpg City/Highway with the 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive Escape, to 21/28 mpg with the 2.0-liter and all-wheel drive. We drove both versions in a spirited fashion and fell below those marks, averaging 22.7 mpg in the 1.6-liter and 19.7 mpg in the 2.0-liter. EPA figures for the 2014 Escape are slightly better than those of a comparably equipped Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 (and good enough, at least on the highway, to induce Ford to abandon the Escape Hybrid after 2012).
The 2014 Ford Escape offers a choice of three engines, all four-cylinder: The least expensive is the tried-and-true 2.5-liter, but it's also the least powerful and the least efficient. Much more modern are the four-cylinder EcoBoost engines. There's a 1.6-liter Ecoboost making 178 horsepower and a 2.0-liter Ecoboost that makes 240 horsepower. Their designs differ, but both are twin-turbocharged four-cylinder engines with direct injection and twin independent variable camshaft timing (Ti-VCT). Ford claims Ti-VCT improves peak power by up to 7 percent and low-speed torque by 5 percent, to quicken acceleration. Fuel economy is expected to be 4.5 percent better than a non-EcoBoost engine.
Drivetrain choice is important because it significantly affects the driving character of the Ford Escape. We found a 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive Escape feels completely different from a 2.0-liter all-wheel-drive model. The 1.6-liter with front-wheel drive is quick, lively and visceral, a blast to drive. The 2.0-liter AWD feels solid, heavier, more civilized, more grown-up. All of them offer a smooth ride, a benefit of this latest-generation Escape's rigid chassis.
Creature comfort is impeccable, even with the standard fabric upholstery, rugged and handsome. Interior materials are soft, and the plastic high quality. Rear legroom is decent, at 36.8 inches, and rear climate control is standard in all but the Escape S base model. There's excellent cargo space, 68.1 cubic feet behind the first row and 34.3 cubic feet behind the second row, and the standard 60/40 rear seat folds flat wonderfully fast, using one lever.
Overall, Escape's styling emulates its big brother, the Explorer. However, its nose more resembles its little sister, the Focus hatchback, distinctive, sort of aero stubby, with the familiar blue oval emblem centered in its wide, narrow grille. The hood has nice character lines, and the headlights sweep sharply back and up into muscular wheel wells.
One clever innovation, which others have been copying, is an available magic release for the liftgate. Kick your foot under the rear bumper, and presto, the liftgate pops open so you can drop your heavy things into the back without having to set them down. It's a feature we like, and would buy, although you can do the same with a remote keyfob that opens the liftgate; that is, if you remember to carry it in your hand with your thumb over the button when you leave the grocery store with your arms full. New for 2014, the hands-free liftgate is available along with the Escape's Class II towing package.
The top-level Escape is available with Active Park Assist. By simply pushing a button, the system detects an available parallel-parking space, then automatically steers the vehicle right into it. The driver operates only the gas and brake pedals, not touching the steering wheel during the parking procedure.
We did not find MyFordTouch, the in-car communications and entertainment system, easy to use.
Wearing the blue oval centered in its wide, narrow grille to say it's a Ford, the Escape's nose is more like that of the little Ford Focus rather than the big Ford Explorer. Aero and almost stubby, the front end looks like it's meant for the business of efficient hauling. Character lines on the hood suggest a cowl. The headlights are sharply angled under sheetmetal speed lines like eyebrows, sweeping back and up into the muscular wheelwells.
The bottom two-thirds of the face is a gaping black mouth in a split fascia. It conceals a Ford innovation: sensor-controlled active shutters behind the grille that regulate air into the engine, for optimum efficiency and maximum fuel mileage.
The rear end doesn't keep up with the Ford Escape's slick front. It looks big and bulky for the size of the car, with lines going in three directions. It's as if the sheetmetal were shaped to match the taillights, including the indent for the license plate, like an upside-down triangle with the point at the bottom chopped off. The standard dual exhaust is visually cool with the twin pipes protruding, but the gray cladding looks like a big silver lump hanging out the back.
Actually, there's something hiding under that cladding that's great. It's an option that opens or closes the wide liftgate (low liftover height) with a small kick of your foot under the rear bumper, using a seeing-eye like the one that flushes toilets in public rest rooms. With an Escape that's so equipped, you'll never have to set down your grocery bags to put them in the back.
We also like the fact that on all three models, there's lots of black eggcrate and not so much chrome. Don't like so much the gray or black plastic cladding that adorns every model.
The rugged fabric seats in the Ford Escape are the best. And since the available MyFord Touch remains problematic, those excellent seats make the Escape S a compelling choice. If you have good standard seats, you can live without options that just cost money and complicate operation of the car.
The driver's seat is good, with a high seating position, excellent visibility all around with that short hood, big back glass, and no over-the-shoulder blind spots. Speaking of blind spots, the small convex mirrors in the upper corners of the sideview mirrors catch nearly everything in the lanes at your rear quarter panels, more accurately than any electronic blind-spot warning system that constantly sends false alarms (which they all tend to do). But if your eyes just can't learn to read a convex mirror, Ford's BLIS (Blind Spot Information System) is an option. The best thing about BLIS is that it includes Cross-Traffic Alert, which spots cars passing by your tailgate as you back out of a parking space and alerts you to that so you don't back into them.
The driver gets a nice dead-pedal footrest, comfortable armrests on both sides, and a helpful grab handle. Gauges are clean and attractive with pretty blue needles. Unlike the expensive Jaguar, Ford's rich sibling of the past, there are actual fuel and temperature gauges. There's a small rectangular window for information, scrolled through using arrows and a dial on the steering wheel.
The turn-signal sound is a classy, Jaguar-like “dink dink dink.” You can hear the soft sound because the Escape is exceptionally quiet. Great job, there.
A small shift lever is dropped down, out of the way, while a SelectShift button on the side of the lever controls manual operation of the automatic transmission. We've complained about this same button on the Mustang, only because paddles are needed on the Mustang for fast shifting; but on the Escape, this thumb-button is just fine.
Steering wheels are often a disappointment in base-level cars, but not here. The four-spoke urethane wheel is okay, with places for your entire palms at 2 and 10 o'clock, and the full array of controls. Overall, the interior materials are soft, and the plastic around the centerstack is high quality.
The best thing about the rear seats is how easily they fold flat, with one lever. There's an available two-position load floor, allowing a flat floor or maximum luggage volume.
MyFord Touch gives you 27 touch-screen buttons to choose from when you're trying to adjust climate control, which is resistant to adjustment. From the subliminal brain's standpoint, that's 27 decisions to make. We could not get it to maintain a comfortable temperature. Set at Auto 71 degrees, it blew cold air with too much fan. We increased the setting to 74, and the temp remained the same, but the fan got stronger. We tried and tried, different ways, but it would not cooperate. All those buttons, each one requiring a decision and translation or interpretation. We gave up, not knowing if the problem was with the setting or with the HVAC itself.
Next we wanted to tune the radio. At least there were only 18 touch-screen buttons to choose from. We tried many of them, to no avail, while we continued to be distracted from our driving. All we wanted to do was change the station. Exasperating.
We found the buttons difficult to operate. The radio buttons are small enough that you have to really look, and use eye/hand coordination. Unlike vehicles that use an old-school tuning knob, there's no keeping your eyes on the road and grabbing the dial and turning it. With MyFord Touch (and other touch-screen systems like it), you have to look down and carefully aim your finger into a little rectangle. If the road is bumpy, the car will bounce and your finger will quite possibly miss. There are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel, and we found them to work better once we figured them out.
We did not like the design of the screen. Forty percent of the screen is taken up by black space, wasted. Two-thirds of the rest is taken up by nothing more than the logo for the radio station; then, twice, it displays the name of the program. The Back button is a tiny little button on the top of the screen. It should be on every page but it's not, so you can't keep going back and trying again to find something that works.
We struggled with voice commands. “Air condition on,” we said, at 65 mph. Apparently it doesn't speak our language, only Ford's, because it replied, “Please say a command.” It immediately referred us to an 800 number and a URL. Like we're supposed to write them down. But we cooperated and tried again, saying, “Temperature 69 degrees.” It responded by giving us a bunch of advice, and reminding us we could get the phone to work and other things we didn't write down. “Please say a device,” it said. We said, “Climate?” It said, “A list of valid voice commands is now on the screen.” We took our eyes off the road and studied the list. “Sixty-nine degrees,” we said, so clear and slow you could hear the condescension in our voice. “Eighty-nine degrees is not a valid command,” it said. We tried three more times, and got nothing but backtalk from our Ford. We asked in exasperation, “What can we say?” and the screen responded with a list of all the nearby gas stations with their prices for fuel. Cool. Except what we wanted was to listen to the radio station of our choice at the temperature of our choice.
The good news is that if you get the entry-level Escape S model, you won't get MyFord Touch, and you won't ever be verbally abused by Voice Command unless you ask for it. Or you can just avoid using Voice Command.
How the Escape drives is affected by the drivetrain you choose. Choosing between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive affects how the Escape drives as does choosing among the three available engines.
The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine delivers decent torque for acceleration when you need it at any speed, and good power at high revs for those who like to wind it up. It's equipped with a balance shaft to offset vibration, and it's smooth. It delivers 10 fewer horsepower than the 1.6-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost, 14 fewer foot-pounds of torque, and 2 fewer miles per gallon. The 2.5-liter engine is about keeping the purchase price down. After that, you have an engine that's a little more expensive to operate while offering less power and poorer fuel economy compared with the newer Ecoboost engines.
When we first drove a front-wheel-drive 1.6-liter EcoBoost, we were impressed by its quickness. With 178 horsepower performing this well, who needs 240 hp? we asked aloud, thinking of the 2.0-liter EcoBoost we would drive next. The word that came to mind to describe the way the 1.6 gets around is scoots, and it scoots all the way up to redline.
Ride quality in the 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive Escape was smooth, while at the same time it felt like it wanted to dance. It darts but doesn't jerk, and you get used to it. There was a bouncy motion to the suspension, but it wasn't harsh or disturbing. It's very nimble, and we love how it handles on two-lanes.
That's probably Torque Vectoring Control at work, an impressive feature for a compact SUV. It uses the stability-control module to monitor the dynamics 100 times per second. When the front inside wheel starts to slip in a corner, braking is applied to that wheel, balancing the grip with the left front wheel and reducing understeer.
Torque Vectoring works with Curve Control, which is like electronic stability control, only quicker; it senses when a vehicle is entering a curve too fast, and cuts power and/or applies braking to individual wheels to reduce speed by up to 10 mph in one second. Think freeway on-ramps or off-ramps, especially in the wet.
The brakes are quite aggressive, or rather we should say the sensors that control the brakes are aggressive, because the mechanical feel to the pedal is just right: nicely progressive. But as we dabbed the brakes before corners on the twisty road, it felt like they were surging and biting. Once we felt the stability control come on, and it actually made a tire chirp when it braked just one wheel.
In some challenging choppy switchbacks, the suspension did a good job of smoothing it all out. We assume that Torque Vectoring Control was at work, but we didn't feel it.
The automatic 6-speed transmission kicks down into fifth gear on the freeway quite a bit, unnecessarily we think; but they all tend to do that, even those in way more powerful cars. The more gears there are, the more the transmission tries to get out of top gear. We tried to keep it in sixth by shifting to Sport/Manual mode, to no avail. We tested its tolerance by slowing down to 40 mph in sixth gear and flooring it; the transmission downshifted to fourth gear, while indicating in the digital window that it was in fifth. It makes us realize that Sport/Manual mode is a paradox. In a true sport mode, a driver would want the transmission to downshift aggressively; in a true manual mode, the driver would not want the transmission to downshift until the lower gear was manually selected.
Our run in the 1.6-liter Ecoboost included a lot of relaxed driving, so for much of the time our throttle foot was light, but we only averaged 22.7 miles per gallon. It's EPA-rated at 23/32 miles per gallon City/Highway.
The Escape 2.0-liter EcoBoost felt like a totally different car: heavier, more solid, less visceral. The handling is slower and the suspension steadier than the 1.6. Most buyers will probably be more comfortable with the 2.0. The 2.0 Escape feels substantial, for a compact SUV.
However, we should point out that our 2.0 was all-wheel drive, and the 1.6 was front-wheel drive; maybe that explains more about the feel of the car than the engine. Tires and wheels were different, also, with 17-inch wheels on the 1.6, 19-inch wheels on the 2.0.
The all-wheel drive system contains sensors that analyze data from 25 signals. Ford claims it operates 20 times faster than the blink of an eye, delivering torque to the wheels as needed, through a torque converter and electromagnetic clutch.
The 2.0-liter engine is not just a bigger version of the 1.6-liter. Although both are turbocharged, direct-injected, 16-valve, aluminum four-cylinders, they're from different engine families; the 1.6 is the older Sigma design, the 2.0 comes from the Duratec family. The 2.0 feels like a V6, compared to the 1.6. Using different turbochargers, the 1.6 has a steeper torque curve, further adding to its quickness and visceral feel. The 1.6 makes 184 pound-feet or torque at 2500 rpm, while the 2.0 makes 270 pound-feet at 3000. We can't say we felt that big a difference. The bigger engine would be better if you tow anything. Properly equipped, the 2.0 Escape can tow 3500 pounds, which is a lot for a four-cylinder compact SUV.
Even having 62 more horsepower, 240 hp vs. 178 hp, the 2.0-liter Escape doesn't feel much faster in a straight line; and maybe ours wasn't, because of a taller rear axle ratio. The 1.6 FWD came with a 3.21 final drive, the 2.0 AWD with a long-legged 3.07, which didn't help fuel mileage much; we got 19.7 mpg with the 2.0. It's EPA-rated at 21/28 mpg City/Highway with all-wheel drive.
Transmissions are the same on the 1.6 and 2.0, but programmed differently, the 2.0 sportier. This 6-speed automatic has rev-matching downshifting. That means you'll hear a little blip from the engine as it goes into gear smoothly, when you manually downshift it hard.
The Ford Escape delivers a classy interior, excellent handling, and plenty of cargo space with rear seats that fold down with one touch. MyFord Touch and Voice Command remain problematic. Escape offers a choice of drivetrains, with three four-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The 240-hp EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder with all-wheel drive feels solid and sophisticated. The 1.6-liter EcoBoost is quick, lively and visceral, while the 2.0 feels like a V6. We liked the Escape SE with the 1.6-liter engine because it delivers most of the virtues at the lowest price.
Sam Moses filed this report after his test drive of the 2013 Ford Escape in the Pacific Northwest.