2009 Ford Escape

As a big speed demon, SUVs don't really appeal to me. They often make poor use of their interior space, handle poorly, and get awful fuel economy. But then, there are the Cute-Utes; the compact-car-based crossovers like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape. I think of them more like the American version of the Volkswagen Golf, one of my favorite cars. Except they're scaled up for our supersized derrieres and offer all-wheel drive for our miserable roads and weather.

Last year, Ford restyled its smallest SUV, giving it what amounted to a comprehensive facelift. Not much changed underneath, as the new trucklet shared much of the original's chassis and driveline. Luckily for it, that chassis, which dates back to 2001, was pretty good to begin with. But the engines and transmissions? That's a different story.

The V-6 offering, which was chosen by more than half of buyers, sounded coarse and was mated to an ancient four-speed automatic transmission. In an attempt to provide decent EPA fuel economy numbers (which no one seemed to care about - my, how times have changed), Ford geared the transmission comically high. The ability to hit 89 mph in second gear gives you a nice passing gear at 70, but the long gears made acceleration leisurely at best.

And the four-cylinder? Well, there's a reason less than half of Escape buyers wanted it. Slow as dirt is a term that comes to mind.

For 2009, though, all that's changed. Unofficially, according to Ford engineers, the new four-cylinder Escape will hang with the old V-6. And the new V-6 model will beat them both to sixty mph by two enormous seconds.

The four cylinder engine has been enlarged from 2.3 to 2.5 liters; horsepower jumps from 153 to 171. That's a significant jump, but the additional ratios in the transmission (both the four- and six-cylinder engines get a new six-speed auto) make much better use of the power: whereas the last car shifted into third gear at 89 mph, the new one does it at 49 mph. The much, much shorter and closely spaced gear ratios mean a 1.7-second reduction in 0-to-60-mph time-the four-cylinder is now able to easily keep up with traffic.

The short off-the-line gear ratios are complemented by very long, widely spaced upper gears. Sixth gear is very long-great for highway fuel economy and quiet cruising. Despite its relatively small displacement (for an SUV engine) the four-cylinder is up to the task of cruising in this gear because it's not a high-revving horsepower mill. Redline is a modest 6000 rpm, and it makes lots of low-end torque. Peak is 171 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.

And the best news of all? Ford expects the Escape's EPA numbers to jump by 1 mpg city and highway compared to the 2008 model. Estimated fuel economy numbers for the 2009 four-cylinder Escape are 21/27 with front-wheel drive, 20/25 with all-wheel drive.

The V-6, like last year's, displaces 3.0 liters, but thanks to a revised intake system and a higher compression ratio, horsepower increases from 200 to 240. Twenty percent more power is a huge gain out of similar displacement, so Ford should be proud of that achievement. And, equipped with the same six-speed automatic as the four-cylinder, the V-6's performance improves similarly. It hits sixty two seconds quicker and also delivers 1 mpg better on each of the EPA fuel economy cycles (estimated 19/24 for front-wheel-drive Escape V-6 models, 18/23 for all-wheel-drive V-6 models.) All 2009 Escape models benefit from tires with lower rolling resistance and aerodynamic tweaks to increase highway economy.

Like before, a five-speed manual transmission is available with front-wheel-drive four-cylinder models, and it does even better than the automatics at the pumps: 22 mpg city, 28 highway. Of course, the idea of a three-pedal Escape doesn't make our hearts race.

But wait - there's more. With estimated EPA numbers of 34/30 (front-wheel drive) and 29/27 highway, the Escape Hybrid is the fuel economy champ. Using a modified, Atkinson-cycle version of the new 2.5-liter, it's also quicker than last year's 2.3-liter Hybrid while offering similar fuel economy. Total system horsepower is 177, but in an impromptu drag race between a Hybrid and a V-6 Escape, the Hybrid took the V-6 off the line - and held a slight lead until about 40 mph. Since hybrids make the most sense in low-speed city traffic, that's the speed range that really matters.

Ford has revised the hybrid system to allow electric-only operation until 40 mph (up from 30 mph), and has made extensive revisions to the brake system to improve its feel. The switchover from regenerative braking to mechanical braking is now imperceptible in most conditions, and brake pedal feel is firm and positive. Further improvements were made to eliminate the shudder when the gas engine is switched on and off, and many times, the driver won't even realize the engine has turned off. The Escape Hybrid remains one of our favorite hybrids because it sacrifices little utility for a measurable increase in performance and fuel economy at the same time.

The 2009 Escape also receives a redesigned center stack, featuring an updated version of Ford's excellent navigation and infotainment system-and, of course, SYNC. The new high-resolution screen is extraordinarily clear, and the menu structures are easy to use.

The Escape remains a great value. With the caveat that we compared it to a Golf - not a GTI - it's a fun-to-drive crossover with great space utilization; a fantastic infotainment system; and now, engine and transmissions to match. For small SUV buyers looking for a little more bang for the fuel-pump buck, the Escape's revisions couldn't have come sooner.

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