By CHRISTOPHER EMCH
Since 2001 the Ford Escape has reigned as one of America’s best-selling compact SUVs, and it returns for the 2013 model year with more features, more power, and a lot more style.
Based on the recently redesigned Focus, the Escape represents the latest car-based “mini-ute” to abandon pretensions of off-road prowess in favor of a sleek and economical crossover form.
Notably, Ford has dropped the optional V6 from the Escape lineup and offers two new EcoBoost engines in its place. These turbocharged 4-cylinder engines offer impressive power without sacrificing fuel economy due to their compact size. EPA ratings for the smaller 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine are 23 city/33 highway mpg with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive models lose 1 and 3 mpg, respectively, at 22 city/30 highway.
Our test car, a loaded SEL model from Schultz Ford Lincoln in Nanuet, N.Y., featured the larger 2.0-liter EcoBoost unit. With 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, acceleration from a stop was brisk, and engine sounds were nicely hushed from inside the cabin at high speeds. Our all-wheel drive Escape’s gas mileage trailed only slightly behind 1.6-liter models at 21 city/28 highway mpg.
The ’13 Escape’s styling is a full-fledged departure from its predecessor’s boxy proportions, with soft creases throughout and a dramatically curving roofline. Up front, angular headlights and a large, trapezoidal lower grille lend an air of aggression to this newly civilized SUV.
Inside, Ford designers combined radical angles and a steely gray color scheme to create a cockpit that is both futuristic and visually stimulating. Our test car was equipped with MyFord Touch, which in the Escape replaces traditional radio controls with a large touch screen and smaller touch-capacitive panel beneath. Button-lovers will not be disappointed, however, with a sea of redundant controls on the steering wheel.
We were pleasantly surprised with improvements to the Escape’s interior quality. A pitfall of the previous generation was a cabin awash in hard, cheaply-grained plastics, and Ford makes up for it in the redesign with soft-touch surfaces across the dashboard and door panels. Still, some low-budget elements remain, namely a flimsy hand brake and overly-glossy faux metal trim along the instrument panel.
Premium features in our test car included leather, a 10-way power driver’s seat (though no power passenger seat), three-position driver’s memory, navigation and Ford’s Sync hands-free Bluetooth system. We also appreciated the standard tilt and telescopic steering wheel, as the driver’s seat had to be powered far back to find a comfortable driving position.
Maneuvering the Escape was a breeze, with light, electrically-assisted power steering that made the crossover handle much like the tiny Focus on which it is based. The Escape negotiated sharp turns with confidence, exhibiting steering response that was precise without being jittery. We found the ride offered a pleasant balance of firmness and isolation from road imperfections.
Though a high dashboard makes the cabin feel slightly claustrophobic, visibility from the front is good, with a steeply-raked windshield and thin roof pillars that enhance driver sightlines. Rear visibility suffers from a narrow back windshield—we recommend the optional backup camera.
The second row leaves something to be desired for those not riding shotgun, with adequate legroom but seat cushions that are firm and offer little side bolstering or thigh support. The middle seat, which flips down to serve as an armrest with two cup holders, offers cinderblock levels of comfort and is best reserved for short trips—perhaps to the end of the driveway. The rear seats fold down to nearly double the Escape’s cargo space, according to Ford’s Website.
With an MSRP of more than $37,000, an Escape equipped like our test car demands a higher price than many of its competitors. Still, base Escapes retain the features that make Ford’s compact SUV so desirable—nimble handling, sharp looks, and decent fuel economy—securing its place as a sales leader in the segment for the foreseeable future.