Used 2003 Ford Escape Review

Edmunds expert review

A very capable small SUV thanks to its powerful V6 engine, spacious cabin, handsome looks and car-like handling. The 2003 Ford Escape is one of our favorites.

What's new for 2003

Need more luxury when you Escape? For 2003, Ford will offer a new Limited edition that includes body-color trim, polished aluminum wheels, a reverse sensing system, a Mach audio system with six-disc CD changer, heated front seats and sideview mirrors, premium leather seats, front side airbags and an autodimming rearview mirror. The XLT can also be upgraded this year with an appearance package that includes special wheels, side step bars and body-color exterior trim. For all 2003 Ford Escapes, there are upgraded interior materials and fabrics, an available two-tone cabin color scheme, illuminated power window and lock switches and three new colors. Finally, the XLS 4WD with a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission is dropped for 2003.

Vehicle overview

Introduction: Ford introduced the Escape in 2001 to capture buyers in the rapidly growing small SUV market. It quickly became a best seller thanks to a correct combination of size, power and ruggedly handsome styling. First year Escapes suffered numerous recalls, but recent models seem to have the bugs worked out. Mazda also sells a version of this vehicle. Called the Tribute, it shares the Escape's basic structure, platform and powertrains.

Appealing to a wide range of buyers, the Escape (and Tribute) is intended for those who want the styling and four-wheel drive capability of a traditional SUV combined with the size, price, practicality and driving characteristics of a midsize car. The Escape is more suited to on-road driving than off-roading, due to its light-duty 4WD system and unibody construction.

Therefore, the Escape isn't as rugged as other compact SUVs like the Nissan Xterra and Jeep Liberty. Its main competitors include vehicles like the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4. In a 2001 SUV comparison test, the Escape finished in first place.

Though long-term reliability is likely not as good as the Japanese entrants, the Escape is one of the best compact SUVs available. Consumers shopping in this segment would be wise to take one for a test drive.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: Only one four-door body style is available with either front-wheel drive or automatic four-wheel drive. Three trim levels are offered: base XLS, mid-level XLT, and a new luxury Limited model. The new Limited model comes with body color exterior trim, polished aluminum wheels, a reverse sensing system, Mach audio system with six-disc CD changer, heated front seats and sideview mirrors, premium leather seats with side airbags, and an autodimming rearview mirror.

A variety of options packages are further available to spruce up the Escape.

Powertrains and Performance: Standard on the Escape XLS 2WD is a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that makes 127 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. It is matched to a five-speed manual transmission. This isn't the most vibrant powertrain, especially if the vehicle is loaded up with people or gear.

Though it returns rather unimpressive fuel economy, the 3.0-liter V6 is a more appealing choice. It makes 201 horsepower and 196 pound-feet of torque, making it one of the most powerful compact SUVs available. The V6 is standard on Escape XLS 4WD, XLT and Limited and comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. With this setup, the Escape can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Safety: All Escapes comes equipped with dual front airbags. XLS models can be equipped with optional four-wheel disc antilock brakes; ABS is standard on XLT and Limited. Side airbags for the front seat occupants are optional on XLS and XLT, standard on Limited. To aid in parallel parking and to detect if small children or items are behind the vehicle, a new reverse sensing system is standard on the Limited trim.

The Escape has done well in government crash testing. It earns five stars for the driver in a head-on accident, the highest rating. The front passenger gets four stars. In side impact crash tests, the Escape receives five stars for both front and rear seat occupants. It has a three-star rollover rating. Less impressive is the Escape's performance in offset crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In this case, the Escape is rated "M" for marginal.

Interior and Special Features: A previous complaint of ours was that the Escape's interior was too liberal in its use of low-grade plastic trim. Ford has addressed that issue for 2003 by upgrading much of the interior plastic. If that still isn't enough for you, the new Limited model includes higher-grade leather than what was formerly available on the XLT. The rear 60/40 split rear seats fold forward to reveal 65 cubic feet of cargo room, a good figure for this class.

Driving Impressions and Opinions Fun to drive, the Ford Escape offers impressive road manners for a compact SUV. It drives much like a tautly suspended sedan, with little body roll and responsive steering. The V6 is much more powerful, providing swift acceleration, but fuel economy is less than what might be expected in a small SUV. A small gas tank also limits range, making for frequent fill-ups.

Edmunds expert review process

This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.

We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.