Review: 2009 Ford Escape

John Holt
by John Holt

Conceived in a desperate search of EPA credits, the Ford Escape has walked in the shadows of its bigger brothers, Explorer and Expedition. Despite the Escape’s loveless upbringing, it prevailed, providing easy cream on Ford’s SUV gravy [train]. In the last fuel surge, the Escape found favor: a future president escaped his Chrysler 300C for a gas/electric version of the venerable Fordette. In the ongoing clamor for right-sized, fuel efficient vehicles, one would think the Escape’s inner virtue would shine through. Instead, Ford stifled its middle child by birthing a clusterf*ck of overweight CUVs (Edge and Flex). For 2009, the Escape, again, eats from the scraps.

The Escape has never been a standout in its appearance, nor has it ever been regarded unattractive. Functional may be the most apt description. The 2008 model year’s redux boxed-out the boxy CUV, but deprived it of the Ford family’s trademark bold three-bar grille (black sheep anyone?). Taken as a whole, from a distance, the Escape remains a reasonably decent looking vehicle. Closer inspection reveals a busy mish-mash of hapless shapes, indents, grooves and lines that scream “design by committee.” Nobody could agree on what an Escape should truly look like, so everybody got a vote.

Stepping inside reveals a whole new world of dissonance. The 2001-07 vintage interior was an utterly forgettable homage to Ford-of-the-day high-gloss, poorly grained polymers, Chiclet-inspired buttonry, and second-rate upholstery. The 2008’s redesign brought an utterly dismissable homage to Ford-of-today semi-gloss, meagerly-grained polymers, Lego-inspired buttonry, and self-inflicted second-use upholstery made of recycled fibers (no joke). It’s not ugly, but it ain’t right.

First up, the positives: “Ice Blue” instrument backlighting is a welcome improvement over Ford’s puke green of yore (good riddance). The passenger and cargo compartment are equally spacious for its class, and visibility is excellent. Plentiful cubbies and storage bins surround the front occupants. And that’s about it.

On the negative side, the Escape’s center stack’s buttons are tiny and difficult to navigate at a glance. Ergonomics were an after(noon?)thought. To wit: steering wheel controls have no tactile representation, the illumination controls are hopelessly lost below the driver’s knee along with the controls for the cluster-mounted info center, the dead pedal (wait . . . what dead pedal?), and Ford’s on-again, off-again love affair with the seventy-gazillion functions on a singular steering column stalk (thank Holy Dieties the cruise buttons remain on the wheel, unlike GM).

The Escape’s seats lack lumbar support, the rear bench is (un)remarkably flat, and the recycled-fiber cloth upholstery feels like recycled-fiber, minus the cloth. A myriad of plastics are reasonably soft to the touch, but the sheen and graining wouldn’t convince you of it at a glance. In sum, the rectilinear design theme is a continuum of discontinuity.

Enough kvetching. Let’s drive.

Ford’s venerable Duratec 3.0 V6 displacing three liters arrives for ’09 with new twists: a six-speed autobox, electric-assist EPS steering (no pump thus no parasitic losses), and a host of massages and tweaks. The resulting 240 hp (40 hp gain) and 223 lb·ft of torque make for surprising haste in this sprightly 3528 lb trucklette. When [if] the transmission decides to [maybe] grab the right gear [stay tuned . . . ], the Escape rips off 60 mph sprints that seem far faster than the manufacturer’s claim of high-8s. If the Escape’s corporate father bequeathed it nothing else, it’s got balls.

Unfortunately, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the new 6F35 transmission completely neuters the Escape’s go-fasterism. Downshifts are lazy and indecisive. Rolling stops constantly get stuck in second gear, and twice (count ’em: one, two) in my week-long Detroit Escape, the transmission hailed “no joy” and checked out completely. This during some frustrated passing maneuvers on city streets (engine returned to idle speed and transmission took three seconds to reset and contemplate the appropriate gear). Anecdotal evidence suggests that Ford transmission calibrations are no stranger to epic failure.

When underway, the Escape feels chuckable. The limits of adhesion arrive early and often. The Conti tires throw the towel to understeer first, but drop-throttle can quickly correct a push without excessive drama. The bean counters stormed the Brake Systems design offices like the FDIC on any given Friday; the Escape is the first automobile in modern days to actually step backwards in engineering time to drums at the rear. Surprisingly, little effort or feel seems lost. The EPS system features cool new tricks like pull-drift compensation to soak up crosswinds and road crowns. It works, and steering feel does not seem sacrificed (not to imply it was stellar to begin with).

Despite the nits and gripes, my heart forgives the Escape. It’s a victim, not a criminal. A patchwork of misfit pieces, it nonetheless manages to work—no thanks to its negligent parents. In the end, the Escape succeeds how a middle child does: as a scrapper. But for how long?

John Holt
John Holt

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  • Grobby22 Grobby22 on Oct 10, 2009

    I have since purchased a 2009 Escape. I love this car. Great gas mileage, handling and great finish and fit. Before I purchased looked and drove almost every car in the segment. 4 cyl engine is fine, tagged to the 6 speed trasmission. Great car for the money.

  • Joeveto3 Joeveto3 on Jan 05, 2010

    I owned an 03 Escape, 4cyl, 5-speed. I opted for the 5-speed, because at the time, the auto had a goofy column shift, and I figured the mileage would be better with the stick. The stick also gave the little Escape a nice basic feel. Unfortunately, the 5-speed, or rather the clutch used with the 5-speed, ended up being a deal breaker for me. The clutch suffered from horrible chatter that worsened when the weather was wet or overly humid. Otherwise, the Escape was one of my favorite vehicles, and I will most likely purchase another (after my current car is used up). I found it to be perfectly reliable (I drove it over 90K miles), fun to drive (the front wheel drive, 4 cylinders have a light, balanced feel to them). When mounted with dedicated snow tires, my Escape provided enough traction to allow me to go anywhere with confidence. I loved the cargo carrying ability, and when my roadtrips turned into real journeys, I never hesitated to pull over, put down the rear seats, and sleep (like a baby). Honestly, if it wasn't for the MADDENING clutch chatter, I'd still have that car...

  • Canam23 My old boss had a Seville STS with the Northstar that he would lend me when I wanted to drive from LA to Vegas. I have to admit that I loved it. Compared to my father-in-laws FWD Deville with the 4.1, the Seville was smooth, fast, comfortable and nice handling. It also was stingy on gas. Fortunately he never had a problem with his Northstar motor and I still think fondly of that car today.
  • V16 I'm sure you could copy and paste most of the "NO" responses to 1960's Japanese sourced vehicles.
  • Canam23 I believe the Chinese are entirely capable of building good cars, BYD has shown that they are very forward thinking and their battery technology is very good, BUT, I won't buy one because I don't believe in close to slave labor conditions, their animosity to the west, the lack of safety conditions for their workers and also the tremendous amount of pollution their factories produce. It's not an equal playing field and when I buy a car I want it made with as little pollution as possible in decent working conditions and paying a livable wage. I find it curious that people are taking swipes at the UAW in this thread because you can clearly see what horrific labor conditions exist in China, no union to protect them. I also don't own an iphone, I prefer my phones made where there aren't nets around to catch possible suicide jumpers. I am currently living in France, Citroen makes their top model in China, but you see very few. BYD has yet to make an impression here and the French government has recently imposed huge tariffs on Chinese autos. Currently the ones I see the most are the new MG's, mostly electric cars that remind me of early Korean cars, but they are progressing. In fact, the French buy very little Chinese goods, they are very protective of their industries.
  • Jerry Haan I have these same lights, and the light output, color, and coverage is amazing!Be aware, these lights interfere with AM and FM radio reception with the stereoreceiver I have in my garage. When the lights are on, I all the AM stations havelots of static, and there are only a couple of FM stations that are clear. When Iturn the lights off, all the radio stations work fine. I have tried magnetic cores on the power cords of the lights, that did not makeany change. The next thing I am going to try is mounting an antenna in my atticto get them away from the lights. I contacted the company for support, they never responded.
  • Lou_BC Are Hot Wheels cars made in China?