Ford has released a series of good-looking cars with excellent mileage lately. But whether it's the too-cramped Fiesta interior or the sluggish transmission on the Focus, these otherwise spectacular mainstream vehicles have had a few serious flaws.
The redesigned 2013 Escape is different: No matter how hard I looked, I couldn't find anything significantly wrong with it.
A duo of new turbo engines offer better performance than the competition, the interior is roomy and comfortable, high-tech gadgetry works well, and it even looks cool. All of this comes with a premium price in a competitive segment.
If you're OK with the price of admission, the new Ford Escape is ready for you, and you won't be disappointed.
It comes in four trims: base S, SE, SEL and Titanium.
At the heart of the Escape's success are three engine choices, all offering 30 mpg or better on the highway, according to Ford estimates.
The just-right engine choice is the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with estimated mileage of 23/33 mpg city/highway. That's just slightly better than the 23/31 mpg in the Honda CR-V and 22/32 mpg in the Chevy Equinox. Mazda's new CX-5 bests the class at 26/35 mpg but with significantly less power.
The mileage figures will draw people in, and the little engine offers little turbo eccentricities. Acceleration is smooth as you move through the gears with the six-speed automatic transmission. Passing power isn't robust despite figures of 178 horsepower and 183 pounds-feet of torque, but there isn't the same straining that you'd feel in the similarly powered CR-V and Equinox with four-cylinders. They don't have turbos.
The larger turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is supposed to be the 2012 Escape's V-6 replacement. I tested it previously in the much larger and heavier Ford Edge SUV and thought it offered a V-6-like smoothness there; it was similar to what the 1.6-liter exhibited in the smaller Escape. Perhaps all the added power -- 240 hp and 270 pounds-feet of torque -- would mean the Escape would be a hot little performer -- similar to Kia's turbocharged Sportage.
Sadly, that wasn't the case.
The 2.0-liter was smooth. No consumer is going to complain about this. It's what you want when you're taking a highway on-ramp or passing at speed. If you like to launch from a stoplight or gun the engine for a burst of speed on demand, it doesn't deliver.
The 2.0-liter is a noticeable step up from the 1.6-liter because you don't experience the limited straining the smaller engine faces going up hills and during hard acceleration at top speeds, but I doubt most buyers will consider moving up to the larger engine. There isn't enough of a performance gain to warrant the extra cost. However, estimated mileage for the 2.0 is excellent at 22/30 mpg with all-wheel drive.
Ford calls all of its turbo engines EcoBoost, a marketing term to be sure. Shoppers should understand that the term doesn't mean anything more than the model they are looking at features a traditional turbocharged engine -- not a hybrid or some other fuel-saving technology.
Without driving the 2.5-liter base engine -- a carryover from the previous generation -- it's hard to say what that will deliver. It was coarse before, but Ford has revised it to get considerably better mileage. It's estimated to get 30 mpg on the highway versus the outgoing engine's 28 mpg.
While power is usually the first performance factor that shoppers focus on, the Escape excels in the steering and handling department, too. Ford wanted the new crossover to be sporty in nature, and it's about as sporty as you can expect in this class. The meaty steering wheel requires a slightly above-average amount of effort to turn, but there's a nice springiness as it returns to center and, like the engine, every turn felt smooth. There's that word again.
For some reason, Ford mapped out a test-drive route of more than 100 miles with a majority of them taking us through some of the twistiest roads in Northern California. These roads showed off how well the car handled, but it's unlikely many consumers will pilot roads like this on more than a rare occasion. The 17-inch wheels on the front-wheel-drive 1.6-liter version squealed a bit through tight turns, but the Escape feels incredibly solid, a trait I've noticed in even Ford's smallest car, the Fiesta.
The Escape's ride is a pleasant mix of firmness -- to help with the handling chops and because of the rigid chassis -- and damped road imperfections. There were many stretches of road with strings of potholes, which reminded me of my sweet home Chicago, and the Escape covered them without bucking passengers or sending sharp jolts.
Perhaps the one flaw in the performance department is the road noise. Over various surfaces, from concrete highways to aging pavement, my co-driver and I both thought the Escape was a bit noisier than the competition, especially the new CR-V and Equinox. It's not a glaring problem and it certainly isn't as raucous as the Sportage or Hyundai Tucson, but it's something to pay attention to on a test drive.
If the exterior paints the Escape as a sleek, futuristic SUV, the interior conjures images of a sports-car cockpit. Ford has done this before with the Fiesta, Focus and even the Taurus, but all three sacrifice some comfort to deliver that atmosphere. The center console in those cars is so wide that your right knee sits uncomfortably close to it. They just feel cramped.
Not so in the Escape. I adjusted my seat and the standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel quickly and felt comfortable with plenty of headroom, dispelling my fears of claustrophobia. Shoulder room is 56 inches and hip room is 54.8 inches. Both compare favorably to what I find to be spacious: the CR-V's 58.6 and 54.5 inches, and the Equinox's 55.8 and 54.6 inches, respectively.
Even better, when I hopped in the backseat directly behind my adjusted driver's seat position, my knees had inches of space in front of them. At 36.8 inches of legroom, the Escape trails the CR-V's 38.3, but by referencing photos of both to check my memory, the Escape shows more room for my knees than the Honda. The Equinox has 39.9 inches of rear legroom but that's due to an adjustable second row that can slide backward and forward. Both the Escape and CR-V have a fixed second row.
The cloth seats in the SE tester were incredibly comfortable after nearly 90 minutes of seat time. The leather buckets in the Titanium trim we piloted for the second half of the day felt a tad firm for my partner, but I thought they were more than acceptable for the amount of time we had been driving.
Driver and passengers will find the exceptionally well-fitted cabin adorned with fewer buttons that are more simply laid out than other recent Fords. Both test vehicles were equipped with MyFord Touch and navigation systems, which add a large 8-inch touch-screen in the center of the dashboard.
We have discussed -- seemingly endlessly -- some of the flaws of this system, but perhaps familiarity breeds some sort of satisfaction. During our trip, with the map screen in use most of the time, it proved to be on par with the competition in clarity and speed between screens. I found using the Home button on the steering wheel to be an aggravation saver, bringing up the familiar screen with four quadrants of info in much larger type than in past versions.
Buttons -- whether they turn up the vent speed or lower the windows -- feel great to the touch, but they're a bit on the small side for my taste. It's a minor complaint that most shoppers likely won't notice unless their digits are on the large side.
Cargo and towing
A major selling point of any crossover, SUV, wagon, minivan or other utility vehicle is cargo capacity. In small crossovers, you want a fair amount of space and the second-row seats to be easy to fold. The Escape delivers on both.
The outgoing model's two-step folding seats have been replaced with an easy-to-use single-step process. Flip a lever at the bottom of either side of the rear seats and they flip forward quickly. Returning the seats upright is a little more troublesome. There's still one lever to pull, but it takes significant strength to push them back up. The fully extended cargo floor is flat, with a piece of material to cover the gap at the bottom of the seatbacks. This should make loading large cargo hassle-free.
The low cargo floor height also helps. At just above my knee, the cargo floor is easily accessible. That means heaving heavy objects will require less effort as will letting your canine companions in and out of the cargo area.
At 34.3 cubic feet with the second row in place and 68.1 cubic feet with the rear seats down, the Escape is again very competitive in the class. The CR-V is rated at 37.2 and 70.9 cubic feet; the Equinox at 31.5 and 63.7, and Mazda's new CX-5 at 34.1 and 64.8. The surprisingly huge Toyota RAV4 still leads at 36.4 and 73.
No matter the numbers, there should be ample cargo room for shoppers in this class, and the ease of use is a big win.
Ford made cargo access even easier with an optional power liftgate. Not only can the gate open with a key fob button or release of the latch, but also it has a new feature: kick your foot at the air under the rear bumper and the liftgate will open. Supposedly, this is great for people with lots of groceries in their hands who are unable to reach a fob or the latch. I can imagine myself loaded with goods kicking out my foot -- and falling on my rump. My yoga-class-attending wife, who saw the feature on a reality TV show promotion, thought it was the greatest idea she'd seen in some time. What do I know?
Towing isn't a top priority for most shoppers in this class, but Ford says current Escape owners wanted some capability. They will have to opt for the 2.0-liter model with an optional tow package to trailer 3,500 pounds. That's identical to the V-6 Equinox.
Escape in the market
Ford continues its winning ways in the styling department. The attractive package should help bring in both Escape loyalists and folks driving the competition. There isn't much competition that can top the mileage, performance, comfort or interior size, either.
The Escape's success may likely come down to the sticker price.