2020 Ford Escape First Drive - Books, Covers, Judgement, Et Cetera

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Ford says it is eventually going to phase out most of its cars – save the Mustang – but the brand isn’t above basing a compact crossover on a car platform.

Yeah, it may be called a crossover, especially by people who draw paychecks from the Blue Oval, but the 2020 Ford Escape is based on the company’s European Focus platform.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a cynical approach, especially with a more rugged “baby Bronco” on the way. But if ride and handling are something you care about, even when shopping crossovers, the results may be pleasing to you.

Possibly more pleasing than the Escape’s styling, anyway.

(Full disclosure: Ford flew me to Louisville, Kentucky and fed and housed me so that I could drive the new Escape. The company also offered a bourbon tasting and allowed journalists to participate in a fake horse-race betting game. I did not partake in the latter, as I have already lost enough real money on horse racing).

Ford’s first- and second-gen Escape was boxy and rugged and looked like an SUV. The next one had sleeker styling that made it look more car-like, if not more handsome and refined. This one looks like an anonymous blob, at least in the pics I saw before I saw it up close.

In person, it’s not that bad – it simply looks like a raised hatchback. The ovoid/blob look fades. The gaping maw of a grille is still confounding, and the look still lacks charm or character, but it’s better than photos would suggest. I did see a few wince-inducing panel gaps; however, the vehicles we drove were either pre-production or early builds, so that’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a bit better story inside – the interior is mostly unremarkable and inoffensive. I am perturbed, as always, by a tacked-on infotainment screen, although removing the shift lever in favor of a dial works in Ford’s favor. The dash is expansive enough to play board games on. Unfortunately, the materials often felt a bit downmarket. I did dig the available digital instrument cluster, although the seat felt a bit tight for my tall and dad-bodded frame.

[Get new and used Ford Escape pricing here!]

Escape is available in S, SE, SE Sport (hybrid), SEL, and Titanium. Lower trims – S, SE, and SEL – come standard with a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder making 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque, while a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 250 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque is available in the SEL and standard on Titanium. Both pair with eight-speed automatic transmissions, in either front- or all-wheel drive guise. All-wheel drive is standard with the 2.0-liter mill.

There are also two hybrid powertrains on offer, which we’ll cover later this week.

I started my day in an SEL with all-wheel drive. On Kentucky’s narrow, curving back roads, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Credit for the Escape’s relative nimbleness likely goes to the usage of the Euro Focus platform.

Steering is appropriately weighted, if not a tad artificial in feel, and the ride isn’t sacrificed for sport. While most OEMs are building competent-handling crossovers these days, the Escape simply feels a bit more sprightly than most. Ford claims that the 2020 Escape shed 200 pounds, so that can’t hurt.

It’s not particularly fast in terms of acceleration, but it will get the job done for passing and merging. More than a few assembled journos joked about how an Escape ST with the 2.3-liter turbo four from the Mustang would be a good seller.

I also spent a few minutes in an SE 1.5 with front-wheel drive. It was predictably slower and a tad louder and coarser – I’d spring for the 2.0 were my checkbook on the line.

Delightful as it was from behind the wheel, I’m still perplexed by the styling. As noted above, it’s a sleeker look in person, even if the grille is just one big gaping maw. But the look is still silly, as if someone simply lifted a hatch. Which, I guess, is kind of what Ford did.

Ford claims the grille is Mustang inspired, which I can see, but I rolled my eyes at a claim the lower front end is inspired by the GT supercar. That kind of marketing silliness won’t fly here.

I understand why Ford would go more car-like with the styling, as opposed to Toyota’s turning the competing RAV4 more masculine with rugged looks. There’s a rugged mini ‘ute en route to the lineup, so Ford needs to differentiate the Escape as an urban runabout.

I also get why Ford will continue to refer to the Escape as a crossover – the word “car” isn’t as hot these days. So this new Escape is lower, longer, and wider than what it replaces, but it’s going to be referred to strictly as a crossover.

Crossover buyers care about utility, of course, and one neat trick offered by the Escape is a rear-seat that slides six inches fore and aft. Maximum rear cargo space is 37.5 cubic feet, and you can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Available features include the digital instrument cluster, park assist, evasive steering assist, Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 suite of driver-aid tech (standard), adaptive cruise control, in-car Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, navigation, Sync 3 infotainment, USB ports, heated steering wheel, power foot-activated tailgate, dual-zone climate control, heated front row seats, premium audio, head-up display, moonroof, fog lamps (LED available), and wireless cell-phone charging. Wheels are available in 17-, 18-, and 19-inch sizes.

Fuel economy for the 1.5 is listed at 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway/30 mpg combined with front-drive and 26/31/28 with AWD. The 2.0 checks in at 23/31/26.

Base S models start at $24,885, with the SE starting at $27,095. SELs clock in at $29,255, and the Titanium at $33,400. Those prices do not appear to include the $1,195 destination fee. We’ll cover the hybrid trim and pricing information, along with specs and fuel economy, later this week.

Automakers usually provide us lowly wordsmiths with a press release extolling the virtues of whatever we’re being feted to test, and Ford is no exception. The boilerplate line from the chief program engineer that appears in this release refers to the Escape being fun to drive.

This time, the propaganda isn’t totally wrong – the Escape is pleasant to drive. Problem is, it’s no looker.

It’s all about priorities, of course. Shoppers seeking style may search elsewhere. Those who care about cornering might not. And plenty of crossover buyers care more about other qualities – size, capacities, features, fuel economy, price, utility.

Putting aside its best and worst qualities and focusing on the rest of the factors that matter to buyers, the Escape fares well enough. It doesn’t offer anything mind-blowing – the sliding rear seat is nice, and it’s a bonus that Co-Pilot is standard (although RAV4 also offers similar tech standard) – but it does offer what shoppers want.

There’s an old cliché about beauty being more than skin deep, and another one about not judging books based on their covers. There’s also an entire genre of pop culture suggesting that inner beauty trumps exterior looks. The Escape is the latest in a long line of vehicles that offer more than the styling suggests.

That said, if you sign the note, you’re the one who has to look at it.

Ed note – the interior image is from a hybrid model, as there was no time to shoot the interior of a gas-engine model. My apologies for the glare; the sun is an a-hole sometimes.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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