Ford Escape XLT 4WD Review
In an era where Explorers are MIA and Expeditions can't make it out of base camp, Ford's cute ute is a mission-critical machine. If Ford's going to Escape its financial woes, their compact SUV has to at least keep the lights on. To find out if the new Ford Escape is "the end to boredom" (as the website proclaims) or simply "the end of the line," I ran America's most popular softroader up the Adirondacks, down the interstate, into Manhattan traffic and ‘round the ‘burbs.
Now that Honda's gotten edgy with the CR-V and Toyota's RAV-4 is too intelligent to be classified (says them), Ford opted to cowboy-up the Escape. To that end (front?), Ford added a shiny new chrome grill, hood and headlights; rounder wheel arches and new taillights– all designed to link the Escape to the Explorer. And there you have it: the Ford Five Hundred of SUV's. Or, as Ford puts it, "One look and you know it's built for people on the move."
Escaping the exterior's old ennui for the Escape's cabin is like putting your accountant on hold so you can talk to your tax attorney. Even if you forgive the interior's blandness as a reflection of the brand's utilitarian remit, the cost-cutting measures used to create the Escape's aesthetic sterility are both obvious and extreme. The center stack's plastic knobs are almost whimsically flimsy.
Ford is trumpeting the fact that all the Escape's controls respond with the exact same tactile feedback (a la Audi). This "switch-feel uniformity" is an admirable achievement for a mass market automaker. But it couldn't overcome the fact that the interfaces involved are made of plastic that Fisher Price wouldn't inflict on its core clientele. I might have been more impressed if the Escape's controls hadn't been arranged with meaningless uniformity (the volume knob is the same size and shape as the fan control) and mind-numbing symmetry.
The rest of the Escape's dash offers more of the same, with a ho-hum set of dials and a steering wheel made of materials that only a company that lost $9b in a fiscal quarter would dare use. I'm willing to tolerate cheap plastic where fingers fear to tread, but I can't abide nasty shifters and steering wheels that offer only slightly more haptic happiness than 150 grit sandpaper.
My steed was equipped with Ford's ancient and venerable 3.0-liter Duratec V6. With 193 horses motorvating 3547 pounds (plus driver), the powerplant proved both smooth and acceleratively adequate: slow but not sluggish. On the highways, the Escape attained 80mph quite easily, even considering the extra weight of the 4WD components. In the mountains, where the car was obliged to ascend gen-u-ine gradients, the engine's shortcomings were obvious.
On anything resembling a moderate slope, the Escape's four-speed autobox had to downshift to maintain speed. The puff problem reminded me of an underpowered Focus that I guided through the Albertan Rockies; I guess these things run (walk?) in the family. I can only imagine how hard that little Duratec would have to work to haul an entire crew, their luggage, whatever's on the roof rack and a bass boat (tow rating: 3500 lbs.) up those hills. Anyone attempting the same feat in the base model's 2.3-liter four would find themselves going nowhere slow.
The Escape's ride was reasonably compliant and its handling acceptable, though not class-leading in either respect. As with most SUVs, it's best to stay south of 80 mph in a straight line and avoid corners. On the upside, the 4WD Escape scythed through a light snow in upstate New York without any problems, which could well be the whole point of this exercise.
My tester stickered at $28k. That puts the Escape in a neighborhood crowded with well-established, highly evolved cute ute competition. After having driven the field I can report that the Escape isn't as refined or practical as the Japanese, as cheap as the Koreans, as hardcore as the German-Americans or as sexy as a packet of processed cheese. While the Escape is not so bad as to provoke derision, neither does it float to the top of the discerning buyer's list. The Escape is average in every way one can possibly imagine.
Except, perhaps, affordability. Let's face it: the Escape isn't destined to remain at that price point for long. Once a prison break of '08 Escapes clear the sales floor, it's only a matter of time before low-cost financing, dealer cash, customer incentives, employee pricing, special lease deals, etc. work their usual magic on the Escape's bottom line. At some point, it'll be one of the (if not the) cheapest vehicles in its class. At that point, I'd still rather be driving something else.
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