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by Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
By Ford's accounting, over 1 million Escapes (and recent Escape Hybrids) have been sold since the vehicle's introduction in November 2000. That's a big number no matter how you slice it, and it seems to indicate people like the Ford Escape just the way it is despite no substantive changes for the past six years. But sales are dipping slightly and it's time for a refresh of the Escape's look and packaging.
With the redesigned 2008 Ford Escape, Ford has married its corporate truck face with the Escape's palatable price and practicality. Some industry people call this type of revision a "top-half" update, or, in other words, just about everything above the floor-to-body pinch weld is new or redesigned. The engines, drivelines (excluding the hybrid) and wheelbase are carry-overs from the 2007 models which are being highly incentive-ized to make room for the '08 Escapes that will be on dealer lots by April.
There are two engines available: Either a 2.3-liter 153-horsepower four-cylinder or, as in our Limited all-wheel-drive model, a 3.0-liter 200-hp V6 with 193 pound-feet of torque. Either engine runs on 87-octane fuel and may be paired with front- or all-wheel drive. A five-speed manual is a four-cylinder exclusive, otherwise, an old-school four-speed automatic manages gearchanges predictably. We did come across a few occasions where we'd wished for an extra ratio or two to better suit the driving situations we encountered.
Our instrumented testing also revealed a few soft spots in the acceleration curve when the engine fell out of its peak-rpm performance where a five- or six-speed would've kept it on the boil. And what's with the steep throttle tip-in we keep experiencing in many new vehicles? As with those, it's difficult to move gently away from a stop in the Escape without an initial jerk of acceleration despite a soft touch of the gas pedal.
Something slow and thirsty
A leisurely 10-second run to 60 mph and 17-second quarter-mile confirmed the 2008 Escape's hand-me-down mechanicals are starting to show their age and lack of sophistication. Some newer small sport-utility vehicles easily make the same dash to 60 in the 7- and 8-second range. Even the 2007 Honda CR-V with its four-cylinder engine is quicker.
We were also unimpressed by the Escape's fuel economy. We averaged 16.2 mpg over 500 miles with a 19.4 mpg best tank-full.
In a case of reverse evolution, Ford has decided to reequip 2008 V6-powered Escapes with rear drum brakes instead of the discs used on 2007 models. We can't imagine how this represents an improvement. Ford says less brake dust and longer lining life are the result, but our testing certainly didn't show rear drums to be an especially effective means of stopping the 3,617-pound vehicle.
Our best stop from 60 mph produced a horribly long 154-foot stopping distance. The worst run was an unbelievably long 161 feet. Compare that to a 3,690-pound 2006 Toyota RAV4 with four-wheel discs and its resulting 130-foot stop and you see why we're questioning Ford's decision. Prioritize as you see fit.
With brakes like that we applaud Ford for stepping up and making two-row curtain airbags and first-row side airbags standard on all its 2008 Escapes. On non-hybrid models, Ford has also made its AdvanceTrac (traction control) with Roll Stability Control (RSC) system standard.
We found RSC to be so effective at quelling potentially hazardous (and fun) yaw and roll rates that it limited our instrumented slalom speeds to a highly controlled 56.7 mph. On the 200-foot skid pad, the system was just as restrictive, limiting the truck's performance to just 0.64g, hardly enough side load to make the tires squeal. In most everyday driving, though, we didn't find the system overly intrusive or even detectable.
The ride, however, is coarse and choppy. Not only does the new Escape look like a truck, it rides like one, too. It remains reasonably flat around corners, damps out the big bumps, but remains "busy" feeling nearly all the time. Maybe Ford would've done well to incorporate the "rides like a car" part of the new breed of crossovers.
All 2008 Escapes feature new electric-assist power steering (EPS), which is easy to get wrong. Happily, Ford did an excellent job with this aspect of the 2008 Escape's engineering. The steering doesn't feel patently artificial or completely numb like some others we've criticized. We like how it parks and drives with just the right amount of effort, buildup and precision each situation requires.
The 2008 Escape's son-of-Explorer exterior styling works well, too. While it's not going to make any headlines in international design journals, we expect Escape buyers to be pleased with the raised hood, higher beltline and the optional chrome package which together properly butch up the Escape's appearance.
We especially like our example's optional 17-inch aluminum wheels that fill up the pronounced wheel arches better than the standard 16-inch wheels. Despite its being a preproduction vehicle, we were very impressed with our Escape's overall fit and finish with its tight tolerances and mirror-smooth black paint. Doors sound solid and close with authority and we didn't hear a single squeak or rattle over the 10-day loan.
Surely a step up from where it once was, the Escape's new interior is still a step behind other comparable small utilities. The look is certainly more contemporary than before with an attractive piano-black painted finish on many of the surfaces; too bad it shows the slightest amount of dust, every fingerprint and smudge. Just don't touch it and you'll be fine.
Options include a touchscreen navigation system, Sirius Satellite Radio, a standard auxiliary audio input jack, and a center armrest large enough to swallow a laptop. Instrument panel night lighting is a cool blue Ford will use on other products. The carmaker has even given it its own name, "Ice Blue," and incorporated it into the Lincoln MKR concept car that will debut at the Detroit auto show next week.
Ford is also touting its new cloth seats which are made of recycled rather than new materials. Our Escape had optional heated leather seating, and front-seat comfort is very good with ample side bolsters and adjustability. The rear seats are flat in comparison, however, and lack any adjustments. Also, the task of folding those rears down is at least a three- or four-step process that cannot be done from the cargo area as in the Toyota RAV4 or Mazda CX-7, for instance.
And a silver sixpence in her shoe
Depending on which models/packages are compared, the 2008 Escape will actually net a very slight price decrease compared to the 2007 models. Our Escape Limited AWD model which carried an as-tested price of $30,610, is base priced at $25,995 -- $385 less than a comparable '07. The ringer here, however, is that Ford is putting a bundle of cash on the hoods of the 2007 Escapes (up to $3,000 according to our TMV® research), so that "lower" MSRP is merely theoretical and is still right in the middle of the segment.
When all is said and done, Ford has put a new wrapper on an old vehicle, a well-selling old vehicle. We don't fault the automaker for the attempt, but we just can't help but wonder if potential buyers are growing more sophisticated along with the small utilities and crossovers the public appears to be favoring recently.
If you've liked the Escape in the past, you'll probably love the new look and added features. If, on the other hand, you'd prefer more must-have new features packed in a quicker, more efficient and, in some cases, less expensive package, you owe it to yourself to look around.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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