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Remember that kid in high school -- good at sports, fun to hang out with, but a little crude? Ford's new mini-SUV, the Escape, is a bit like that lad. The Escape is selling nearly as fast as NSync concert tickets in a city overpopulated with pre-teen females, being gobbled up by folks drawn to the ute's spunky performance, good looks and generous interior space. But like that old high school buddy, it has a lack of refinement that can sometimes get on one's nerves.
The Escape competes in a very crowded market that is dominated by stalwarts like the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Xterra and Honda CR-V. Others looking for their slice of the mini-SUV pie are the Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara and the new Hyundai Santa Fe. Those in the know, such as our loyal readers, realize that the Escape is basically a twin to the Mazda Tribute. Unlike the other truck-like SUVs that Ford produces, the Escape (and Tribute) utilizes unibody design, which offers lighter weight along with better handling and ride as opposed to body-on-frame construction. Ford and Mazda spawned both utes via a joint effort. Minor differences in sheetmetal, suspension tuning and interior trim separate the two, but powertrains and dimensions are identical. A wheelbase of 103.1 inches puts the Escape squarely against the likes of the CR-V and Santa Fe, two of the more maximum mini-utes.
Of course, styling is a subjective area, but to most eyes here at Edmunds.com, the Escape is a handsome rig though not quite as distinctive as the Tribute. One editor, however, did prefer the Escape over its fraternal twin and described the Ford's appearance as muscular and tough, the ideal choice for those turned off by the looks of other mini-SUVs. Meaty 235/70R16 tires mounted on five-spoke alloy wheels along with Chrome Yellow paint gave our XLT test vehicle a serious "I ain't no toy" appearance.
Inside the cabin, the driver faces an attractive instrument cluster that features white-faced gauges. Big door pockets, two cubbyholes under the center stack and a large, covered bin between the front seats provide plenty of places to stash maps, CDs, cell phones, PDAs and any other 21st century trappings of the average road warrior. Generous cupholders up front handle water bottles easily. The most often used controls are arranged in a user-friendly manner with the audio unit mounted above the climate controls. Large knobs and switches make these two systems easy to operate for the most part, though a few gripes were voiced concerning the stereo. The display is a bit cluttered, making it hard to read at a glance, and the column-mounted gear selector (when placed in drive) blocks a couple of the stereo's left-side controls.
Unfortunately, an abundance of hard plastic is used inside the Escape, such as on the door panels and dash. Although we realize that the Escape is not competing against $40,000 luxury SUVs, a little more soft-touch material would go a long way toward improving the look and feel of the interior.
Rear seat roominess defies the Escape's mini-SUV classification. Two 6-foot-tall guys riding in the back seat had plenty of room, with neither their heads nor their legs making contact with the Escape's roof or front seatbacks. Cargo capacity is average at 63 cubic feet with the second seat folded.
There are two trim levels for the Escape, which is available with either two- or four-wheel drive. The base XLS is far from a stripper and comes well-equipped with features such as power windows/locks/mirrors, keyless entry, a CD player and air conditioning. The XLT trim adds ABS, upgraded seat fabric, a split folding rear seat, a cassette deck to the stereo system, alloy wheels, foglights and chrome grille accents. Options include a Comfort group that bundles leather seating with a power driver seat, the latter feature a rarity in this vehicle class.
Pricing ranges from $18,185 for a two-wheel-drive XLS to $21,360 for a four-wheel-drive XLT, about average for a mini-SUV.
The Escape is motivated by a standard 2.0-liter Zetec inline four (which is coupled to a five-speed manual transmission) or the optional 3.0-liter Duratec V6 (which comes mated only to a four-speed automatic gearbox). Although the four-cylinder engine makes respectable numbers for its size (130 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque), we'd skip the four-banger and go for the V6, whose muscle (200 horses and 200 ft.-lbs. of twist) is a better match for an SUV loaded up with passengers and gear. Towing capacity with the V6 is rated at 3,500 pounds -- more than double that of some rivals, such as the Suzuki Grand Vitara and Toyota RAV4. Indeed, the spirited V6 (the most powerful engine you can get in this class) and the alert automatic made the Escape feel more like a sport sedan than an SUV.
Around town, there was plenty of punch for dealing with the cut and thrust of the daily commute, and cruising up an open freeway on the way to ski country (and going with the flow of traffic), we were surprised to see the speedo indicating 85 mph, so relaxed and stable was the Escape at this velocity. The only giveaway that this ute was hustling along at such a rapid clip was the pronounced wind noise around the A-pillars. The automatic gearbox was generally quick to drop down a gear to make short work of passing or merging and most of the time changed gears smoothly, though on a few occasions the downshifts were a bit harsh. Upshifts were well-timed and virtually seamless in action.
Overall, the Escape felt like a decathlete among SUVs. On the track, it sprinted from zero to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 16.6 ticks. Still, in spite of these impressive numbers, our road test pilot wondered how much quicker it would be if a manual gearbox (or a five-speed automatic, like that in the Ford Ranger) were available with the V6. The Escape was equally adept at slowing, as it hauled itself down from 60 mph in only 126 feet. Pedal feel was very good: progressive without feeling mushy. And the ABS was free of shudder when called into action on a particularly slippery section of road up in ski country. The Escape's well-rounded ability is what one might typically associate with a sporty car, not an SUV. We would expect a V6/two-wheel-drive version to be an even better performer, given its lighter weight.
Although maybe not quite as crisp around the bends as its Tribute brother, the Escape handled twisty mountain passes well enough to elicit shouts of joy, (well, OK, mumblings of praise) from this author, who normally equates driving an SUV with auto-journalist purgatory. A supple ride was another characteristic of the Escape that helped endear this little ute to the Edmunds staffers. Some credit for the fun-to-drive factor and comfortable ride must go to the four-wheel independent suspension, wide track (over 3 inches wider than the bigger 2001 Explorer) and the unibody construction. Seat comfort was acceptable, nothing stellar but neither a pain in the backside. Helping to quell the interstate drone was a powerful stereo that got us fired up for skiing by playing our favorite CDs with stunning clarity.
In the interest of a comprehensive review and for the benefit of SUV owners that actually venture off-road, we took the Escape off the tarmac to tackle some boulders and brush. The Escape's Control Trac II four-wheel-drive system is operated by a simple switch on the dash and has two modes: Auto and On. Left on Auto, the Escape operates in front-wheel-drive mode in the interest of better fuel economy. If the front wheels start to spin, torque is automatically metered out in varying amounts to the rear wheels for additional grip. Selecting On will send power equally to all four wheels all the time, ideal for going off-road or dealing with slippery on-road driving conditions. The On setting is similar to the 4WD Hi setting on a more heavy-duty SUV or pickup truck and shouldn't be used on dry pavement as driveline binding may occur when attempting tight turns.
Although the Escape isn't really meant for serious off-road duty (for example: it doesn't have a Low range for the four-wheel-drive system) it handled most of this terrain with aplomb with the four-wheel-drive system set to On. Only during a particularly difficult scramble up a steep, muddy and narrow path did the Escape falter and come to a halt, all the tires spinning in vain. A second attempt (after cautiously backing all the way down) with more gusto off the line conquered this hill. In all fairness, this pass was made even tougher by deep ruts previously carved into the path that had the Escape partially sliding on its belly like a croc slithering up a riverside bank, not to mention the street-biased tires wrapped around its now-filthy alloys. A few more inches of ground clearance and more aggressive off-road tires would have made this attempt a lot easier on both of us. But then again, the Escape is geared toward those who want a vehicle that can handle foul weather, a lot of gear and trips to the campground, fishing spot or mountain trailhead, not the Paris-to-Dakar Rally.
As gas prices climb, so does interest in how far a given vehicle will go on a gallon. Our test vehicle's average gas mileage wasn't anything to brag about -- 18 mpg against the EPA's estimates of 18 city and 24 highway. Granted, this was the V6/four-wheel-drive version, and the Escape saw its share of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways (or is that trappedways?) Those who want both a roomy SUV and good fuel economy may want to check out a two-wheel-drive Escape with the four-cylinder/manual transmission powerteam as it posts impressive mileage figures of 23 city and 28 highway.
Hey this all sounds great, you must be thinking. What's not to like? Well, like the happy-go-lucky jock mentioned earlier, the Escape's got the speed and the moves and is generally fun to have around. But it does have a few areas that could use refinement. Sometimes the Escape could be a bit loud; in addition to the aforementioned wind noise, there was an occasional squeak and/or rattle to be heard. We also noticed a few small lapses of attention to detail on our test vehicle, such as an ill-fitting gasket between the windshield and dashboard, as well as a wrinkled carpet in the cargo area. And sometimes it actually smelled bad: causing one of our editors to wrinkle his nose in disgust at an unpleasant odor that he noticed in the cabin during his stint with the Escape. Though this foul trait was not always present, there have been a number of recalls (five to date) issued for the Escape, one having to do with a faulty fuel-line to fuel-filter connection that can result in this odor. Finally, although the optional step rails may look cool, they're basically useless except for getting your pant legs dirty.
The general consensus around here was that everyone really liked the Escape and felt that once Ford works out the refinement issues, it's going to be hard to beat.
System Score: 7.75
Components. The first impression of the radio is how well it's positioned. It inhabits the upper portion of the dash, nicely elevated to give the driver a good view of the road while operating the controls. The radio offers six AM and 12 FM presets, along with a built-in CD changer that handles six discs (but, alas, no cassette). The topography and ergonomic feel of this radio is superb, with nicely spaced buttons and a large, ridged volume control that has an excellent feel.
Likewise, the speaker array more than meets the mark. It begins with an 8-inch subwoofer in the passenger-side rear quarter panel, plus a pair of 5-by-7 full-range speakers in the rear doors, plus another pair of 5-by-7s in the front doors that are rolled off to a wonderful pair of tweeters tucked next to the A-pillars. Ford just has it down, folks. These tweeters sound great.
Performance. This system kicks booty. For such a relatively inexpensive vehicle, it offers an excellent value. The subwoofer produces ample thump and bump, and most of the instruments, especially drums and percussion, have a pleasing liveliness and attack. In addition to the nice bottom end, the highs and mids are intricate and detailed, and the whole system sounds balanced.
Best Feature: Great-sounding tweeters.
Worst Feature: The gearshift lever blocks the left side of the radio when the car is in drive.
Conclusion. Ford has hit another home run with this sound system. Its audio engineers really have it dialed in. -- Scott Memmer
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says:
As I was driving the vibrant yellow Escape one morning, I passed under a billboard advertising the vehicle. The model pictured was the spitting image of the one I was testing, and the tagline read: Escape. Your Boss. Your Job. Your World. Ironic, I thought, considering that I was on my way to work at the time.
Snide marketing criticism aside, I liked the Escape. Not surprising, considering that I enjoyed the Mazda Tribute we had tested a few weeks prior. I did, however, notice a distinct increase in creakiness over the Tribute, which isn't screwed together so tightly itself.
Our tester was equipped with the optional V6 engine, which performed admirably. I'd imagine that performance in the four-cylinder would be anemic, however. This mini-ute made a surprisingly agreeable commuter vehicle. I recently drove a Ford Explorer Sport, and the difference was like night and day -- the ride in the Sport was so rough and jostled that I felt like I was riding on the rims; Escape, on the other hand, provided a nicely dampened ride. Ah, the pleasures of unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension. Of course, I can only speculate as to how much this would hinder its off-road ability.
I applaud Ford for holding out on its attempt to capitalize on the mini-SUV craze -- it gave them time to develop a genuinely likable vehicle.
Editor-in-Chief Chris Wardlaw says:
After I spent the holidays traversing the country in our long-term Mazda Tribute, the Ford Escape wasn't much of a surprise. There are differences between the two, but they are so subtle that I couldn't be sure they actually existed or if I perceived them simply because Ford and Mazda PR claim their mini-utes are aimed at different buyers.
Around curves, the Ford's body felt like it rolled around on the suspension to a greater degree compared to the relatively flat attitude displayed by the Tribute. Also, I thought the ride quality was softer than the Mazda's -- like a Tribute running about 10 psi under the recommended tire pressure. The Ford shifted less obtrusively, and the steering was slower to respond. Though I noticed these things, I doubt the average consumer taking a 10-minute test drive of each would be able to discern much difference.
Inside, I found that I preferred Mazda's stereo and climate control layout. The Tribute's radio offers larger knobs and buttons than the Escape's, and the Japanese-brand SUV's climate controls feel better when twisted. Seat comfort is better in the Ford, thanks to a manual lumbar support feature, but neither truck is particularly comfortable after a long day at the office or on the road. The Escape we drove had step tubes on the sides, and they served virtually no purpose, actually hindering entry and exit.
One thing I did notice in the Ford on two occasions was a horrible stench that would suddenly permeate the cabin. The night I drove it home, the smell reminded me of skunk, but with a sweet overtone to it that made me sick. The smell was not coming from outside the car, though it is possible that by the time I got the window rolled down, the source of the odor was behind me. The next morning, after a workout at the gym, I opened the passenger door to get my knapsack and smelled gas. Based on postings about a fuel line problem on Tributes, I think our Ford test truck was similarly affected.
It's too bad about the build-quality teething pains associated with the launch of the Escape and the Tribute, as well as the rattling and squeaking cabins. These are generally agreeable trucks, easily at or near the top of their class. Nothing a tad more attention to detail wouldn't fix.
Senior Editor Neil Dunlop says:
This is a home run for Ford. While most other mini-sport-utes are wimpy, lightweight pseudo-trucks, the Escape manages to look like a big truck despite its relatively small size. I think this is due to the fact that Ford designers, intentionally or unintentionally, took cues from Jeep's Grand Cherokee. In fact, the Escape looks like a scaled-down JGC, which instantly gives it a muscular, tough appearance that should appeal to consumers previously turned off by the "effeminate" design of other mini-SUVs.
The Escape's V6 engine provides more than enough power for quick starts and anxiety-free highway passing. Cruising, it is as silent and smooth as many V8s, but fuel consumption is, of course, much better.
Cargo space in the rear (with easy, waist-high, unobstructed slide-in loading) is ample enough to hold luggage for a weekend away and a 100-pound black Lab, both comfortably. Also, rare for a mini-ute, the rear seats are comfortable for two full-size adults. I don't like the front seats. Although they are comfortable, the seating position is too much like a minivan and not sporty enough. The Mazda Tribute, a rebadged and tweaked Escape, offers sportier seating and a more aggressively tuned suspension, but its exterior design is not as muscular. I'd take the trade-off and get the Escape.
In terms of appearance, performance, comfort and utility, the Escape is my hands-down favorite mini-SUV and even challenges some of the mid-sized SUVs, mainly because of its excellent value.
"We have had our Escape XLS V6 4X4 for 3,500 miles and still love it! Gas mileage: It started out bad, but has improved over the last couple trips. About a 20-mpg average between highway/city. A note: the odometer reads low. I used mile markers from the highway and determined after 12 miles I lost 3 tenths of a mile. Either the state is wrong or the odo is. 4X4 as 4X2: December was a bad month for Michigan weather. Fifty-plus inches of snow for the month. And I had fun! I switched to 4X4 once, just to see what happens, otherwise, I have left it in Auto and I can barely tell when the 4X4 kicks in. And the snow has been bad enough where it has to kick in. My sister-in-law had her driveway plowed too narrow for her Olds 98, so I used the Escape to knock down the sides (playing) so the snow could be shoveled away. No problems.... Seatbelt clicking: There was an annoying clicking from the driver's side seatbelt. I took it into the dealer and they replaced the seatbelt unit (?) but the clicking has reappeared. I was mistaken in my original diagnosis: the velocity lock for the [pretensioner]. It seems to be coming from the swivel loop the seat belt travels through at the shoulder. My guess is that there is a washer that is not tight (so the mount can swivel). It has been too cold for me to check into it further, so I have been living with the click. Comparisons: When we started looking into the mini-SUV market we test drove Kia and Honda as well. My take: Kia doesn't hit the pocket book as hard, but has less power, is smaller, and has poor stability, while the CR-V was bigger (not as big as the Escape), had better power (not like my V6) and looked better, but the $18K for a '97 with decent miles just didn't seem to be a bargain. The 20-minute drive we took in the Escape sold me, even after I saw all of the complaints here in Town Hall. To anyone still on the fence: if you have tried it but are concerned about recalls, etc., get one anyway if you have patience. I have found Ford to be prompt (I received a recall notice already, and it has been dealt with) with dealing with the problems with this new vehicle...." -- chaosiii, "Ford Escape -- II," #259 of 356, Jan. 23, 2001
"I just picked my new Escape XLS four days ago.... I ordered the vehicle September 19. It was delivered to the dealer January 3. I was able to pick it up on the 6th. Fifteen weeks. I was told at the time I ordered it would take 8-10 weeks to have a manual transmission model delivered. If I had ordered an automatic the dealer claimed ETA would have been 6-8 weeks. I must admit I'm glad the delivery was delayed. The vehicle didn't come off the line until after the recalls, so those issues had been resolved. When I picked up the vehicle there were 96 miles on the odometer. I pointed this out to the sales rep who promptly quipped, "that's 9 POINT 6". Nope, not so. I discovered this by the time I got the car home. Tenths of a mile do not show on the odometer -- you have to press the trip odometer button to see tenths. While I was fussing over the car later that day, I found a notice in the glove box explaining that the vehicle had been selected for test driving at the plant and that 89 miles were on the odometer as a result. I informed the sales rep about his mistake when he called to check my customer satisfaction levels a couple days after delivery. I ordered the convenience group that included speed control, upgraded security, cargo cover and floor mats. I was mostly interested in the first two items. I must say that the floor mats are very cheesy. I checked with the service/parts department before leaving the dealership on getting replacements. $76 and not in stock. Just as well, as they were probably just as cheesy as the originals. I bought better quality mats for a much lower price later on. Now that I've delivered the bad news, here's the good news: This vehicle is a blast! Keep in mind that my previous vehicle was a '92 Explorer XLT, automatic. Compared to the "Exploder," the Escape is a joy to drive. It corners without drifting, delivering a much better feel for the road (should I mention here that I went for the upgraded tires and wheels?). The visibility from the front seat is excellent, the controls are well placed (who knew you could load so many functions on one little wiper control wand?), and the manual transmission has been a pleasure to operate. One added bonus that puts a smile on my face is knowing that I don't have to jump out into space to get out of the car. Even at 5' 9", for me, it was a climb up or down from the Explorer, the Escape is sized much more comfortably. I know that four days of ownership hardly adds up to extensive experience, but I am really enjoying the Escape right now and hope to continue to enjoy it for years to come." -- husikam, "Ford Escape -- II," #230 of 356, Jan. 10, 2001
"I have found my Escape to be an excellent value. My gas mileage is slowly creeping up in the city, but my highway miles are at about 22.5 mpg between 65-80 mph. So I can't really complain. My wife does all of the city driving [normally 10 inches in any direction and the car never gets up to proper operating temps]. This will eat up the mpg. I'll say one thing, this vehicle can lull you into a false sense of security. The handling is almost too good for an SUV. I find myself driving it like a sports car at times, and I enter a corner and it will remind me. I have had it slide (General tires, 15-inch) with some roll in the body. I get out off the accelerator and it straightens right up. It does scare you, though. Overall though, this vehicle seems very safe and is a lot of fun to drive.... I haven't had any problems with my cladding, wipers, or fuel smell, and mine was purchased Oct. 27, 2000. I think anyone that purchases one of these vehicles should be very pleased. It is very functional, comfortable and FUN to drive." -- thcsac1, "Ford Escape -- II," #262 of 356, Jan. 24, 2001
Editor's Note: An additional comment from thcsac1
"We just got back from Tennessee (650 miles round trip). The Escape averaged about 22.5 mpg running anywhere from 55-85 mph, and sometimes 90.That was up and down some very long grades. I'm very pleased -- where else can you get an SUV that feels stable and gets better than 16 mpg? The road noise is a little high, but I think that's just part of the SUV experience. I have been reading a lot of problems with the Escape, but fortunately, have had none. Ours has 3,000 miles now, and it has just been ZOOM, ZOOM. Where else are you going to get a vehicle for less than $25,000 with a CD player, cruise control, 200 horsepower, all-wheel drive and a 20-mpg average?" -- thcsac1, "Ford Escape -- II," #226 of 356, Jan. 7, 2001
"I bought an Escape XLT V6 off the shelf on Nov. 3, in Rockville, Md. The next week, I drove 2,300 miles to Phoenix, Ariz., and have been driving it extensively in all terrains. Today the odometer reads 7,900 miles. Next month, I am planning to drive back to Boston. So far, I am completely satisfied with the vehicle. Escape is still very rare in Arizona. I have kept a complete log of my driving. I get 15.5-17.5 mpg in city driving depending on the speed. On the highway, when I set the cruise at 85 mph, I get 21.5 mpg on average. When it is set at 65 mph, I get 25 mpg on average. The [main] complaint I have is that at high speeds, wind noise is very high, [and] I have to turn the stereo volume high. (I have now gotten accustomed to the long gearshift blocking the access to the stereo's volume control.) Also, I cannot direct the A/C ducts to blow anywhere else other than straight to the face. I have the standard single-CD, six-speaker, one-subwoofer stereo, which is very good for its price. All in all, a good vehicle." -- oldexplorer, "Ford Escape -- II," #223 of 356, Jan. 4, 2001
"After carefully considering the constructive feedback found here, I made the plunge on a loaded XLT minus leather. Dealer just happened to have the exact model I was considering, so I can't share the delivery pains some of you are experiencing, I also found I was eligible for the Ford 'X' plan (dealer invoice minus one percent), so negotiation not an issue either. However, I haven't been exempt from my share of first year problems: (1) the fuel smell (the dealer had even reported that the repairs had been made) (2) transmission occasionally downshifts hard (when coasting/braking to a stop). I am usually more critical than the average consumer; however, I have to admit Ford has a good idea in the Escape. More attention should have been paid to the assembly details. Now the good news: I am getting about 20 mpg in all city driving (V6 4x4, too). For those on the fence, I can recommend the vehicle but would suggest waiting as long as possible for Ford to work out all of the kinks. My Expedition lease was up, so I couldn't, and I don't miss it a bit." -- phinupy, "Ford Escape -- II," #163 of 356, Dec. 11, 2000
"Just passed the 1,000-mile point. I keep VERY accurate mileage records. Getting 15 mpg in my to/from work commute in Philadelphia city traffic with the V6 and 4x4. The mileage is increasing with each fill-up. (For comparison, I used to drive a severely underpowered '93 Escort and got 22.5 mpg over seven years in the same commute.) The Escape is great, no problems to date. Great seating position and interior room for a 'small' vehicle, plenty of power. Could nit-pick about the interior, but overall very happy." -- anonymous, "Ford Escape -- II," #120 of 356, Nov. 22, 2000
-- Edited by Erin Riches