To my eye, the Escape’s exterior is the most attractive of the three, as up-to-date as the Mazda but more coherent (if long in the nose and overly busy at the other end). Its interior is a fine place to be, at least in the top-level Titanium trim with its vibrant displays, upscale materials (though these seem decidedly less special in a $35,000 Escape than in a $23,000 Focus), and attractive cloth+leather upholstery. (The center stack in Escapes without the controversial MyFord Touch interface is both unattractive and unintuitive.) The front seats are comfortable and supportive. The view forward from them could be better. A steeply raked fishbowl of a windshield makes for an exceedingly deep instrument panel with upturned corners. The view to the rear is even worse, but there’s tech to help with that. As in the Focus, the design of the instrument panel and console prioritizes sportiness over space.
Based on the brochure, the Escape offers nearly as much combined legroom as the CX-5, 79.9 inches to 80.3. But climb into the Ford’s back seat and the shins of a man of middling height will graze the front seatback. How can this be? Well, Ford cheated the specs. They put the front seat all the way back when measuring front legroom. Then they shifted it forward about 2.7 inches before measuring rear legroom. Viola, nearly three more inches of combined legroom, enough to move the Escape from the bottom of the pack to near the top! I’ve never encountered this trick before. If it spreads, legroom specs will become as useless as cargo volume specs, where multiple legitimate methods of measurement make for specs that cannot be reliably compared. Beyond legroom, the Ford’s undersized rear seat isn’t as comfortable as the others, but unlike in the Mazda rear air vents are included in the upper trim levels.
Cargo volume is more competitive, and swinging a foot beneath the rear bumper opens the tailgate when the crossover is equipped with passive entry. A folding front passenger seat like the one in the Tiguan would be a plus, but one is not offered.
The Escape is quieter inside than the VW or the Mazda (though wind and road noise intrude at highway speeds; a Focus is quieter still). The compact crossover feels solid and firmly damped in the European way. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: the new Escape was developed primarily by Ford of Europe and will be sold in much the same form in Europe. Opt for the 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, and it’s also the most powerful vehicle in this threesome. Yet it doesn’t feel much stronger than the Tiguan. According to some reviewers, the 2.0T also doesn’t feel much more powerful than the 178-horsepower 1.6T. (A 168-horsepower 2.5-liter is also offered, but only with front-wheel-drive and only in the base model.) The seat of my pants and stopwatches beg to differ, with the 2.0T about two seconds quicker to sixty (figure seven vs. nine).
With so much packed into the vehicle, something had to give, and that something is curb weight. With the top engine and AWD, the Escape tips the scale to the tune of 3,732 pounds, over 300 more than the CX-5 and over 140 more than the Tiguan. This poundage comes through in the Escape’s handling. In casual driving the Ford feels heavy and even a little sloppy, as if too much weight is shifting about too high off the ground (which it is). With the other, lighter engines, the crossover feels a little more agile. The Escape’s rear suspension could use some firming up, as the tail initially rolls a bit much in moderately hard turns, except that ride quality, already a little touchy at times, would suffer. The related Focus hatchback traverses patchy pavement with more polish, no doubt aided by its lower center of gravity.
The CX-5 feels tighter and more precise. BUT, unlike the Mazda, the Ford packs enough power to exploit its chassis. Not only this, but the harder you push the crossover the better it behaves, that hint of sloppiness giving way to well-controlled, thoroughly predictable responses. Torque vectoring works the brakes to counteract understeer. Dive hard into a tight curve, and the rear tires actually slip first, but within safe limits set by the non-defeatable electronics, helping the crossover rotate. Plant your right foot approaching a corner exit, and the all-wheel-drive system does its job, distributing 270 pound-feet of torque to the appropriate contact patches without fuss. Unfortunately, all is not so good with the powertrain. The six-speed automatic can become indecisive and even hesitate for a crucial heartbeat or two when you get jiggy with the pedals. If only Ford could get their dual-clutch automated manual to live up to its potential…
Rear seat room isn’t the only area where the Escape doesn’t live up to its specs. The EPA rates the 2.0T with AWD at 21 mpg city, 28 highway, a bit better than the Tiguan’s 21/27. In practice it tracked two or three mpg below the Tiguan, with the trip computer often reporting numbers in the low 20s. Keep the engine on a continuous boil, and the numbers plummet. Drive the most powerful Escape like you would a Prius, and 27 can happen, but that’s about as good as it’ll get off the highway. For competitive fuel economy, you need to drop down to the 1.6T, which is EPA rated just a little better, 22/30, but in practice roughly ties the Tiguan, with a suburban trip computer average of 26. The Mazda is the clear champ in this area.
Like other recent Fords, the new Escape has a semi-premium price to match its semi-premium materials and content. The tested “Titanium 4WD” listed for $34,735. This is with nav ($795) and a “parking technology package” ($995, value dependent on how often you parallel park) but without full leather ($895) or a panoramic sunroof ($1,395). You’ll pay considerably less for a Mazda CX-5. Even stepping down to the 1.6T for more comparable thrust, an Escape with leather, sunroof, and nav lists for $4,115 more than the Mazda. Adjust for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the Ford’s disadvantage remains over $2,000. Compared to the Tiguan, though, even the Titanium costs $1,615 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $2,900 less afterwards.
So, which of the three driver-oriented sub-premium trucklets is best? Well, it depends. My wife most liked driving the Tiguan thanks to its superior forward visibility and lighter steering. The CX-5 handles the best, has the roomiest interior, goes the farthest on a gallon of gas, and costs the least. So, if you’re not feeling the need for speed, it’s the one to get. And the Escape? Its build quality and refinement are, for some reason, not quite up to those in the related Focus despite a higher price. Better packaging would benefit both forward visibility and rear seat room. But for crossover buyers who want some horsepower with their handling, or who must have the latest gadgetry, but who cannot afford a BMW X3, the new Ford is the best of the bunch.
Ford provided an insured Escape Titanium 2.0T with a tank of gas. Frank Cianciolo of Avis Ford in Southfield, MI, provided two other cars, with the 2.5 and 1.6T engines. Frank can be reached at 248-226-2555.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.