On the Road Review: Ford Escape SE FWD

A certain irony revealed itself in the recent visit of Ford’s current Escape compact class crossover wagon.

Ford was not an initial innovator in the small crossover class, while still relying on robust Explorer sales 16 years ago. But in 2001, the Escape’s debut one-upped the then existing Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V immeasurably. The Escape featured a roomier cabin. It handled and rode better than the Asian offerings. In addition, it came with both four-cylinder and much more powerful six-cylinder engines that satisfied driving tastes better than the single small powerplants offered by the Toyota and Honda.

Through the early years, the Escape became the new class benchmark. Sales zoomed at a time when buyers were starting to leave the larger, and dated feeling, Explorer and other midsize SUVs; consumer tastes were changing.

Ford even came to market with a hybrid Escape, well ahead of the renowned hybrid purveyor Toyota — whose RAV4 hybrid is just now coming to market, seven years after the Escape hybrid. The first edition Escape was so popular in its class that Ford ran production of that generation series for 11-years.

For 2016, we are nearing the end of the second-generation Escape as a redesigned model looms for 2017. Currently, Ford offers three trim levels, S, SE and Titanium, packaged around three powertrains, a base 168-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the upgraded 178-hp 1.6-liter turbocharged Ecoboost motor and the potent 2.0-liter Ecoboost with 240 hp. The latter turbocharged engine offers more peak horsepower than the departed V-6 engine, in a smooth, refined fashion that will surprise drivers. There is no current hybrid offering in the Escape, as Ford has counted on its Ecoboost series to deliver efficient power as well as greater fuel efficiency.

After several days together, our mid-level Escape SE with front-wheel drive generated numerous logbook comments about its fluid, composed performance. The driving experience ranks near the top, if not the top, of the segment, with robust power from the turbo-Ecoboost motor, adroit road manners and a comfortable ride that doesn’t sacrifice any necessary roadhandling. Ingress and egress, as in all Escapes, is very convenient, the driving position earns high marks, while day-to-day usability remains a hallmark of the car’s design. In many ways, the current Escape will still make buyers wonder why they need a larger crossover wagon.

Even while prodded with a heavy foot, our sample Escape returned reasonably efficient fuel mileage — almost 27 mpg with an EPA projection of 22/30 mpg. AWD models, ($1,750 more) get a highway mpg rating of 28 mpg with the six-speed automatic, which certainly generates more conventional driving sensations than the CVT transmissions used in some rivals.

The miss in this potent package, the irony, is how far back the Escape has slid in the pack in the face of what rivals have recently created with interiors and control layouts that supersede the Ford’s previous successes. Several of the Ford’s controls felt clunky, almost outdated compared to the smooth, tactile feel of recent crossover samples such as Hyundai’s significantly upgraded Tucson. Too many buttons are too small or awkwardly applied to the point of bewilderment, like the minute rear wiper control on the end of the stalk, or the angle with which your fingers navigate the upgraded Sync 3 screen recessed deep in the dash. Missing is keyless ignition (keyless access is provided), plus automatic headlamps. The Escape’s console area also lacks the pockets and spaces that rivals have conveniently included.

Absent the comparison to other products, buyers can be forgiven for not realizing these omissions, yet in the context of a competitive market, the Ford’s perceived shortcomings are now notable. Hence, the anticipated upgrades with the next Escape.

With FWD, our SE (starting at $25,650) featured a rear camera, Sirius, Ford’s upgraded Sync 3, 10-way power driver’s seat, privacy glass, fog lamps, dual exhaust tips, 17-inch alloy wheels, as well as steering wheel audio and cruise controls. Options such as the SE Convenience package, $1,395, the 2.0-liter Ecoboost engine, $1,195, navigation, power liftgate and 18-inch chrome wheels pad the suggested retail price to $31,880.

This is noteworthy for how the Escape stacks up against rivals such as the newer Tucson, which featured much more equipment — including AWD, heated and cooled leather seating, and a plethora of safety features absent from the Escape — for almost the exact same list price as our front drive SE tester.

Recognizing this, Ford has some large incentives in place to ensure that dealers can still make attractive financial offers to keep the Escape in play this year. Rebates as high as $2,000 will certainly help sales, and dealers surely must have other cash-on-the-hood programs to keep the Escape’s sales level still in the top three in the class with the Honda and Toyota offerings.

Looking ahead, the next Escape will offer even more power with a twin-scroll Ecoboost 2.0-liter, fresh new interior and exterior styling, stop-start technology for greater city mpg, plus enhanced Active-Start for convenience. The foot-operated power liftgate carries over, only on Titanium trim, while Ford continues to make its Sync system more reliable and user friendly.

There is no reason to change the chassis or the car’s driving dynamics — it works very well as is. However, the next Escape must address the pace at which the industry makes design advances inside, as well as in content, if Ford wishes to be the benchmark player in this segment that it used to be.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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