2003 Ford Escape XLT Popular Fwd 4dr SUV (3.0L 6cyl 4A)
The driving experience is excellent, the handling, cornering, acceleration and braking are all above average or better. I was aware of several specific shortcomings of the vehicle, and all were solved by add-ons at purchase. For example: Several ford models are known to have transmissions issues at 100,000 miles+. This is solved by purchasing the TOWING package that adds a transmission cooling system & radiator to prevent trans damage. My transmission has never so much as slipped. The soft paint & rust issue is partly solved by a rubberized undercoating and wheel well sheathing. Overall the car is wonderful and would buy it again.
Handling, reliability, towing capacity. Rear seats individually recline, the Escape can be driven through snow banks up to it's headlights, which i have been required to do several times (emergency response vehicle).
Paint durability and rust resistance are my biggest problems with the car. Road noise. The tires are WELL known to be the source of road noise in this model, not just 2003. The wheel wells should be better insulated against this. Such an easy fix and Ford did not try it? Why not?