To say the all-new 2013 Ford Escape is important to Ford is like saying Peyton Manning might be of some use to the Denver Broncos. Ford has sold more than 2 million of these little SUVs since its launch in 2000. It fights month-on-month with its archrival from Honda, the CR-V, for top sales honors. It's a necessity for Ford, especially in this era of soaring fuel prices, that the Escape continues to be a top performer.
So don't mess with a good thing, right? Wrong. With the 2013 Ford Escape set to arrive at dealers in May, the brand will unleash the first truly all-new Escape since the original. The global Escape (called the Kuga in some markets) is now based on the new Focus platform, and nearly every nut, bolt and body panel is new on this rig.
Unlike the original Escape, with its clean but very traditional two-box design, Ford's Kinetic philosophy now stands at the forefront of the Escape's message, with an in-your-face trapezoidal grille, rising beltline, sloping roof line and fancy head- and taillights, all of which make the outgoing Escape look like a prude school girl by comparison.
The Focus Giveth
The Escape's overall length is increased by 3.4 inches and it rides on a wheelbase that's some 2.8 inches longer than the 2012 Escape. An extra 1.3 inches of width combined with a 1.6-inch lower overall height helped the Ford design team hone the sporty shape they were looking for.
There's still plenty of room inside, even in the rear seat, which we found to have excellent head- and foot room and decent knee room. The 60/40-split/folding rear seat now has a simple one-touch lever for fold-flat ability, as well as a seatback recline function.
The wide front seats are exceedingly well-padded, with good bolstering for the seatback. Like the Focus, the Escape has a grippy, thick-rimmed steering wheel that adds to the SUV's sporty driving dynamics. And as with the Focus, interior quality is excellent, with soft-touch materials for the dash and door sills, along with well-padded door armrests and center armrest. We did notice an intermittent rattle in an early-production Titanium model, coming from the hard plastic center section of the dash.
Good Choices Are Good Choices
The 2013 Ford Escape will have three (count 'em) four-cylinder engine choices, all combined with six-speed automatics and, unfortunately, Ford's ultra-goofy lever-mounted rocker switch for manual shifting. Both the 2012 Honda CR-V and the all-new Mazda CX-5 make do with just one engine — a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter inline-4 with 185 horsepower and a five-speed automatic in the CR-V, and a 2.0-liter 155-hp four mated to either a six-speed manual or automatic on the CX-5.
Unlike with the current Escape, there won't be a hybrid, as the C-Max will take over that duty.
The 2.5-liter in the base Escape S ($23,295 including $825 destination) is basically the same engine as last year, now with 168 hp and 170 pound-feet of torque. Ford cares so little about this engine — probably because it's expected to make up less than 10 percent of the Escape mix — that it didn't have any on hand for us to try.
Feeling the Boost
That's OK, because it's neither the fuel economy leader nor the power champ of the group. The former distinction goes to the new, English-built 1.6-liter EcoBoost (estimated 23 city/33 highway mpg versus the CR-V's 23 city/31 highway), which makes its American debut in the 2013 Ford Escape SE ($25,895). It's packed with a turbo, direct injection and variable valve timing. Using 91-octane fuel it produces 178 hp at 5,700 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque at just 2,500 and does so with little turbo lag and minimal noise. More importantly, it does a reasonable job of moving the 3,502-pound front-drive Escape (all-wheel drive is available for $1,750 in either EcoBoost model), but it surely won't blow you away with its power. The one oddity was a slight hiccup in the surge of power at about 4,500 rpm.
An extra $1,095 gets you the 2.0-liter EcoBoost with 240 hp at 5,500 rpm and 270 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm (also using 91-octane), replacing last year's 240-hp 3.0-liter V6. This is the same EcoBoost that's a bit overmatched in the 2012 Ford Explorer, which means it's absolutely terrific in the little Escape. This, friends, is the engine to get if you don't mind sacrificing a few miles per gallon (EPA rating of 22 city/30 highway/25 combined with FWD).
In uphill situations where the 1.6 needed either extra throttle or a downshift (or both), the prodigious torque of the 2.0 pulls the Escape through without a thought. It's also quieter and smoother, and offers good punch when you press the right pedal all the way to the floor. And the 2.0 enables a 3,500-pound towing capacity.
Handling the Curves
It was Ford's intention that the Escape be on the sporting side of the small SUV segment. Being based on the extremely competent-handling new Focus is a good start. Mind you, with its higher weight and a higher center of gravity you won't mistake the Escape for a Focus, but it's willing enough when the road begins to twist. The electric-assist steering doesn't have the spot-on feel of the Focus as it's a bit syrupy in its delivery, but body roll is reasonably well-controlled.
Things improve further in the Titanium model. Not just because of the 2.0 EcoBoost, but also because of the extra grip from the higher-performance all-season 19-inch tires and the ability of the (optional at this trim level) all-wheel-drive system to put the power down when exiting turns. Ride is taut but still supple enough. The shorter, stiffer sidewalls of the Titanium's 19-inch tires gave it a slightly more jittery ride than the 1.6 SE.
The brakes on the SE were touchy on initial application at low speeds, but pedal stroke was still long, and they didn't feel particularly powerful.
Certainly Ford has done some very solid work with the Escape's aero qualities (it's 10 percent more slippery than the outgoing model), as it exhibits very low wind and road noise.
Ford says the 2013 Escape is available with "11 new exclusive features no other small SUV offers." These include a blind spot information system with cross-traffic alert, a power panoramic roof and a hands-free power liftgate system, or as we call it — the kick-to-open tailgate. That's right, after years of being told by your parents to never, ever use your foot to close a door, Ford now wants you to kick the tailgate to open or close it.
In reality, your foot never needs to touch the tailgate, but rather just swing under the bumper to set off a sensor provided you're carrying the key fob. It's part of an $1,895 option package on the Escape SEL. When it works, it's handy. But it didn't open for us on first kick every time. Maybe we're uncoordinated. Or really bad at soccer.
King of the Small SUVs
With more diverse and efficient engine choices, a nicer interior, sportier handling manners, unique available features and a new look that's sure to grab some stares, the 2013 Ford Escape is better in every way than the vehicle it replaces. Yes, it's a bit more expensive than before (the base model starts $1,030 higher), but there's also considerably more content.
Its primary competitors — Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 — can't match its engine choices, while the Kia Sportage and Toyota RAV4 can only dream about the Escape's interior refinement.
But here's the most intriguing aspect of the 2013 Escape story: Ford sold more Escapes in 2011 than ever — 254,293 units to be exact — trouncing the CR-V. Given those numbers and the 2013 model's specs, it might just be more useful to Ford than Manning is to the Broncos.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.