Ford Escape provides a pleasant, competent, driving experience. Take your pick; it's either a large compact, or small mid-size SUV-like vehicle. Escape first arrived more than a decade ago, before the term 'crossover' became part of the automotive lexicon. It's a tall-standing vehicle with sport-utility-like looks with the underpinnings of a road-intended car. This vehicle has aged gracefully and won't break the bank when stepping up to the check out line. Don't expect to do heavy off-roading with Escape, although exterior cues are borrowed from some of Ford's larger trucks and SUVs.
Escape is also available with a gas-electric hybrid propulsion system, providing higher mileage ratings. Ford provided us this time around with the gas-exclusive variety. The Escape platform is also used to build the Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner.
Escape comes in several mix and match varieties. Three trim levels (XLS, XLT and Limited) are available, each providing a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Shoppers also choose between two updated engines: an inline 2.5-liter four-cylinder powertrain (delivering 171 horsepower, up from 153 last year), or a 3.0-liter six-cylinder (cranking out 240 horses, 40 more than 2008). A new fuel-saving six-speed automatic transmission comes standard except in the entry four-cylinder XLS where a five-speed manual transmission is offered.
Also new is Ford's 'Easy Fuel' design with a capless entrance to the 16.5-gallon fuel tank. When refueling, the gas station nozzle pushes through a flexible, curtain-like barrier.
Starting price for our test 2009 front-drive XLT with four cylinders was $22,730. The only options were a cargo package with roof rack ($395) and a convenience package with satellite radio ($295) for a bottom line of $24,115 with $695 destination charge. The lowest priced XLS four cylinder with front-drive starts at $20,435.
All editions come standard with rear window wiper, rear defogger, cruise control, air conditioning, compact disc player, power windows, locks and mirrors.
Escape is a nice sized, versatile vehicle with two rows of seating and a cargo area. No third row seating is offered and would not work well in a cozy vehicle this size. The cloth front bucket seats in our XLT test vehicle were inviting, comfortable and supportive. No back or butt fatigue after several hours behind the wheel.
Rear seats incorporate a 60/40 split to increase cargo carrying ability. Lightweight seat cushions fold forward before seatbacks fold forward (once a flat, easy-to-grab latch is pulled up). Before doing so, headrests must be removed and stored somewhere in the vehicle. Escape's manual recommends stowage under the front seats. The front passenger bucket seatback does not fold flat as do some others in this segment.
When prone, two adults fit most comfortably in back; three is just too much. A nice touch are permanent dual cup holders for rear riders positioned high up between the front bucket seats, not the fold down variety along the floor. Rear wheels, positioned forward a bit, make the leg and body entry way into row two a bit tight. Front driver and passenger don't face the same fate as a wide entry way greats those occupants. Headroom in front is more than generous, in back, adequate
Dashboard and instrument cluster are utilitarian in design, yet pleasant. It's skewed toward a 'masculine' point of view, but both sexes will find it functional and pleasant. The center dashboard column includes the stereo positioned towards the top and ventilation functions along the bottom. Two dials control fan speed and temperature and a series of buttons monitor blower direction. The transmission shifter is in between the front bucket seats along with lots of storage nooks for cell phones and Ipods. Escape comes standard with MP3 capabilities and other plug-in portals for today's 'stay-connected' society. The parking brake is foot, not hand operated. The glove box is diminutive as are the interior door handles. And Escape lets occupants stay in Sync. The high-tech, built-in Sync electronics (developed for Ford by Microsoft) allow voice activation of most audio controls, navigation systems and some portable telephones. More and more Ford vehicles are turning to Sync technology. Sync is standard in Limited Escape trims and optional in all others.
Escape keeps the utilitarian theme of the interior alive outside. The vehicle received an exterior makeover in the 2008 model year adding visual tweaks found on larger Ford SUVs. The front, bold grille has the iconic blue Ford oval front and center flanked by square headlight designs. A mast-style radio antenna adorns the right front fender. Side door handles are black, thick, strap like and easy to grab even when sporting gloves. The rear hatch opens two ways; the glass opens independently from the door, or the entire unit, hinged along the top, opens up from the bottom high enough so those 6-feet and shorter won't bump their noggin. A rear wiper comes standard and the spare tire rotates down from the bottom of the cargo area when needed. Lift up the cargo floor carpet to find a four-inch deep storage area for light tools or other items out of the reach of prying eyes.
A non-descript exterior nuance that may go undetected at first are the set of four 16-inch Michelin low rolling resistant tires. While the new six-speed automatic transmission squeezes more fuel economy from a gallon of petro, so too do these tires. When matted to either the four or six-cylinder engine, one extra mile per gallon is generated according to Ford. These tires are standard on the hybrid escape as well.
Despite these fuel enhancements, Escape's four cylinder engine when matted to the six-speed automatic transmission does not crack the 30 mpg barrier. Estimates check in at 20 mpg city and 28 highways with front-wheel drive. With the five-speed manual (and fwd), expect two miles better in city travel and identical highway mileage.
Escape has stepped up safety a notch in 2009. Cruise control and antilock brakes are now standard in all three trim levels. Also standard are traction control, stability control, rear door child safety locks, front airbags for row one bucket seat riders and side head curtain air bags covering both rows.
Weighing in at 3,400 pounds, Escape has a solid road feel. The peppy I-4 engine may be the click to pick over the six cylinder unless plans include carrying a heavy load (read many passengers) more often than not.
Escape 's warranty is decent (five years/60,000 miles for the engine/drivetrain), but other auto makers including General Motors and Hyundai/Kia have longer durations. Escape is built in Kansas City, Mo.