Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
I'm in a quandary right now. I'm supposed to be writing a story on the Ford Escape, but "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is on TV. Who knew a combination of Reege, average Americans and a hokey soundtrack could be so enthralling?
Would you accept a half-ass story full of dribbling trite prose? Hmm, probably not. Nor would my editor...
So then, this is Ford's new Escape. Reege will have to wait. After creating (and profiting quite nicely from) the Explorer, Expedition and Excursion, Ford decided maybe not all potential SUV buyers want oversize vehicles that suck gas and cost thousands more than an average car. Ford needed a smaller SUV, one that would appeal to younger buyers who perhaps have never owned an SUV before.
Unfortunately for Ford, this is not a novel concept. Toyota's cute 'ute, the RAV4, has been around since 1996. Then there's that pesky little thing called the Honda CR-V. And don't forget the Isuzu Amigo, the Nissan Xterra and the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Note to Ford: If you're going to show up fashionably late to the party, you need to do something to attract attention to yourself.
I've learned that showing up with your fly open works well, but Ford decided to go with an entirely new SUV platform. This is a shared platform with Mazda. Unlike previous vehicles in which one company would do all the hard development work and the other would just glue on its own badge at the end (like the Probe/MX-6 sport coupes or the Ranger/B-Series pickups), the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute project was a joint effort. A team of 30 Ford engineers spent two years in Japan working alongside Mazda engineers.
That's an admirable feat (and not just because of the severe hardships endured by not having easy access to Big Macs). Yet upon first inspection, it would appear that this joint effort produced nothing revolutionary. The Escape is built on a unibody chassis, has four doors and a liftgate, and is motivated by a four- or six-cylinder engine. Standard Escapes are front-wheel drive, with a four-wheel-drive system being optional. Yawn -- can somebody pass the excitement, please?
But it wouldn't be wise to quit reading here. Dig deeper, and you'll see that the Escape's design is evolutionary and therefore offers many improvements to the breed.
Ford considered using body-on-frame construction like its bigger SUVs, but unibody was clearly the way to go for this smaller type of vehicle. The Escape's unibody frame offers the advantages of lighter weight, better handling, easier entry and exit, and enhanced crash safety.
Scan the spec table, and you'll see the Escape is compact in length, but rather wide and tall. In comparison to the Explorer, the Escape is 18 inches shorter but has only an 8-inch shorter wheelbase. Its wheel tracks are surprisingly wide, measuring 3.5 inches more than the Explorer's.
The wide track and stiff chassis complement the Escape's fully independent suspension. The front consists of MacPherson struts, while the rear is a multilink design with semi-trailing arm with two lateral links and coil springs between the trailing arm and body. Steering is rack-and-pinion, while the brakes are discs in front and drums in the rear.
This is great and all, but it doesn't do much while the Escape just sits in your driveway. Movimiento, por favor. Ford offers two engine choices. First is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Zetec engine that generates 130 horsepower and 5,400 rpm and 135 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. This engine comes exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission.
This output might be fine for a lightweight economy sedan like the Focus (where the Zetec is also used), but it's rather weedy for an SUV. Unless you enjoy traveling at a public transit-bus pace, the better choice is the 3.0-liter V6.
This one is from the Taurus, and it makes the same power: 200 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 4,750 rpm. It's been slightly modified for use in the Escape, gaining a tougher oil pan (for off-road durability), composite intake manifolds (rather than aluminum), and revised exhaust manifolds. The only transmission offered for this engine is a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy estimates are 23/28 city/highway for the Zetec four-cylinder and 20/24 for the Duratec V6.
With either setup, Ford's Control Trac II four-wheel-drive system is optional. So equipped, a switch on the instrument panel offers two choices: "auto" or "on." Auto mode should be fine for almost all conditions. During normal driving, engine power flows to the front wheels only to improve fuel economy. But if the front wheels start to slip or spin, progressive amounts of torque are instantly redirected from the front to the rear until traction is regained.
The "on" mode is comparable to the 4-Hi position found in bigger 4WD SUVs. When engaged, it distributes torque equally between the front and rear wheels. This setting will enhance performance when driving off-road or on especially slippery surfaces. However, Ford says the on mode is not recommended on dry roads because it can cause some binding in the driveline during tight turns.
Even when equipped with the 4WD system, it's clear that the Escape isn't designed to be a hard-core off-roader. The Escape's suspension is biased toward ride quality and handling on pavement. Additionally, Control Trac II lacks a two-speed transfer case. Given the Escape's limited purpose, Ford decided the extra expense and weight of a two-speed T-case were not worth the off-road performance gains.
There will be two trim levels available: XLS and XLT. The Zetec four is standard on both, with the V6 being optional. Ford anoints the XLS with standard equipment like air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo with CD player, power mirrors and windows, and remote keyless entry.
In addition to that equipment, the upscale XLT has better-looking 15-inch wheels, a convenience package, antilock brakes and a rear cargo area powerpoint. A leather package, a tow package (3,500 pounds max with the V6) and an in-dash, six-disc CD changer are optional on the XLT only. Side airbags can be ordered on either model.
At the press launch, only XLT V6s were available for evaluation. Traveling on both backcountry roads and highway, the Escape impressed with its stable demeanor. The new unibody chassis and independent rear suspension are clearly the reasons for this. Plenty of SUVs wallow through corners and bounce around on uneven pavement, but that's not the case here. The 4WD system is quick on the job, and in auto mode, the Escape tackled light-duty dirt roads with no problems.
With 200 horsepower from the V6, acceleration is almost giddy. Well, giddy for a SUV. For comparison, a V6-powered 4WD Xterra weighs about 500 pounds more than an Escape and has thirty less horsepower. The Escape's automatic transmission isn't the smartest lump around, but it generally gets the right gear. Add in the responsive steering, and it's surprisingly easy to think that you're driving a car rather than a truck.
As a bonus, you can also haul around 63 cubic feet of cargo. Ford hopes buyers will use this space to carry bikes, camping and hiking gear, and other such "active lifestyle" paraphernalia. Sixty-three cubic feet of cargo space is competitive for the small SUV class and is achieved by folding the rear seat forward. To get the rear seat to fold completely flat, you need to flip the seat cushion forward and remove the headrests. The cushion can also be removed for additional space.
More impressive is the amount of interior room provided for the front and rear passengers. Thanks to its wide and tall stance, the Escape equals or betters the larger, four-door Explorer in headroom, shoulder room, hip room and legroom. As for smaller SUVs, only the CR-V comes close.
XLT drivers are greeted by white-faced gauges, a column-mounted shifter and a large, flat-black center instrument panel housing big climate knobs and a standard Ford stereo unit. Storage space is generous, with two large front cupholders, useable door bins, a large center bin and two centrally mounted cubbyholes. Material quality is the only disappointing aspect, as there are no soft-touch plastics to be found on the dash or on the doors.
The Escape goes on sale during the Summer of 2000. Pricing starts in the low-18s for a stripper front-wheel-drive XLS and tops out at around $25,000 for a fully-loaded 4WD XLT V6. Ford's last small truck-like thing, the Bronco II, was a heap. This is a billion times better.
In 1999, Edmunds.com compared six mini SUVs. The Xterra eked out a win over the CR-V. If the Escape was around for that test, it could have quite possibly won due to its advantages in horsepower, interior space and handling ability. But to really find out, the world will have to wait for another Edmunds.com comparison test. I can hardly wait. Now, is Regis still on? Damn.
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